Students in pajamas huddled together outside Dodd early Thursday morning, after having been woken up by the fire alarm at 3:30 a.m., to watch as flames burst out of the basement area underneath the kitchen.
Security officers attempted to combat the flames with extinguishers and to make sure all residents were out of the house until three fire trucks from the Williamstown Fire Department appeared. Students were directed to stay in Mission until they could be let back into their rooms. They were provided with
blankets. Students were allowed back in their rooms at about 6 a.m. once firefighters had put out the fire, inspected the building and the smoke had cleared out.
According to Fire Marshal Joe Moran, the fire was caused by an electrical short in the basement ceiling of the Dodd kitchen area.
“When that area was renovated a nail had been driven through the wire so after years of vibration it wore through and hit one of the conductors,” Moran said. “But electrical shorts happen and [the Dodd fire] does not necessitate an inspection of the whole campus.”
Moran said most fire alarm incidents are due to power outages, such as motors being burned out or a transformer shortage like the fire at Mission Park two years ago. Williams has had only three actual building fires over the last few years, including the Dodd fire.
Security arrived at the scene almost immediately and most students thought the situation was handled well.
“Some of the fire department volunteers got here fairly quickly, but it took a little while for the engines to come and finally get the water flowing from the fire hydrant,” Brian Safyan ’98 said.
“I guess my largest concern was knowing what was going on, which I didn’t, while the people were fighting the fire,” Robert Chang ’98 said. “They definitely had a job to do, however, and couldn’t be distracted so I understand that.”
Chang lives in the room right above where the fire occurred. After the initial shock he said he thanked God for keeping everyone safe.
“I thought it was commendable that the Head of Security Jean Thorndike-Wilson, and Dean [of the College Peter] Murphy got out of bed at 4 a.m. to oversee things,” Sheri McKay ’98 said.
Earth Bennett ’98 agreed, saying, “I was pretty impressed that Dean Murphy came down to tell us what was going on at 4 am. I assume that he isn’t normally just up and about at that hour. That shows some real concern for the students, in my opinion.”
Other students were very disturbed by the fire.
“I did not and do not feel safe when for the second time my dorm has gone up in flames due to ’poor wiring,’” Kristin Cashore ’98 said. Cashore lived in Mission during the transformer fire two years ago.
“It would have helped to have an extra security person to make sure people weren’t standing in the road – which some were – when the fire trucks came to tell us where we could go, to make sure people were warm enough,” Kristin Doughty ’98 said. “Someone did eventually get blankets over to Mission, but
they still weren’t there 40 minutes into the fire . . . . That’s a long time to stand in the snow in yourbathrobe.”
According to Head of Security Jean Thorndike-Wilson, post-evacuations sites have been set up so that students have a place to gather when they are unable to return to their dorm. “The sites also allow us to provide information to the students and check the building roster if necessary” she said.
Sleeping arrangements for many students were not comfortable and many were concerned about the lice epidemic, but the evacuation of Dodd was short-term and students were able to return to their rooms Thursday morning.
“I thought about crashing on a couch in someone’s common room in Mission, but I started thinking about the whole lice epidemic thing, and opted to tough it out instead,” Bennett said.
Doughty also avoided Mission. “I ended up tramping over to Thompson and sleeping on a hardwood common room floor…[It was] delightful that the fire problem was compounded by the lice problem, so even though there were couches all over campus that I could have slept on, I didn’t want to, in fear of being infested with parasitic bugs,” she said.
Other students attempted to sleep in Mission. “I stayed in Mission trying to sleep on the table right there in the front entrance,” Elise Cucchi ’00 said.
Dean of the College Peter Murphy said, “If the evacuation time were longer than three hours, we would definitely arrange for something – from appropriating some room somewhere to putting people up in motels.”
Moran said the Fire Department only holds two fire alarm drills each year, which is the number state law requires. Many students, however, expressed concern that they did not respond to the fire alarm very quickly due to the number of false alarms.
Cashore said, “My initial reaction as I lay in bed was, ’great, another fire alarm, I’m not going anywhere.’”
“I’m used to sleeping through the alarms,” Josh Mankoff ’98 said.
“We’ve had a lot of false alarms in Dodd lately, including the Friday of homecoming weekend when someone who was drunk set off a fire extinguisher on the third floor,” Doughty said. “Things like that made it so that two of my friends didn’t leave – one has learned to sleep through the alarms, and one is
simply fed up with having to get up once every two weeks in the middle of the night to stand in the cold.”
“The fire alarms go off so often that of course it never occurs to me that the building could actually be on fire,” Cashore said.
Thorndike-Wilson said, “Numerous false alarms are always detrimental to response time. People just assume it’s another false alarm and don’t take it seriously.” She added, “That’s a dangerous mind set to have but it happens all the time. People need to treat every fire alarm like it was the real thing.”
Moran said the fire department is constantly looking at the causes of false alarms to prevent them. According to him, five of the false alarms in Dodd were caused by faulty detectors in the dining area and things being burnt in the kitchen. In such cases, Moran said he will try to rectify the problem by such
methods as increasing exhaust areas or by replacing a smoke detector with a heat detector. “We constantly look to see what the problems are in certain areas and to rectify them so there aren’t so many false alarms,” Moran said. “We work so hard because we want students to be reactive to the alarm. It takes something like the Dodd fire to make people realize and react.”
Safyan said, “When the chances are so good that it’s a false alarm, you begin to think twice about actually going outside when you hear the alarm in the middle of the night.”
Moran said, “If the students are out and it’s nothing, Security will get them back in, but otherwise it puts someone else’s life at risk because a security officer has to go in and check to see if everyone is out.”
This was the case at the Dodd fire when two students did not hear the alarm go off.
“Our beds are in the inner room of a two-room double and so we didn’t hear the fire alarm in the hall when it sounded,” Rich von Bargen ’99 said. “The officers came in with flashlights and yelled, ’Let’s move it! The house is on fire!’ In the rush to get outside, I forgot to put on shoes, and my feet were really in the hurt locker by the time we got to Mission.”
Director of Housing Tom McEvoy ensured von Bargen that he would notify the Fire Marshall immediately to make the alarm louder in his room.
Other residents also commented on the effectiveness of the alarms. “The Dodd fire alarms are far from loud and it took me a while just to wake up from them. Last fire alarm, I know people who slept through
them,” Cucchi said.
On the positive side, Chang said the frequency of fire alarms helped students react more calmly. He said, “I didn’t panic when the alarm went off but I also didn’t move as fast as I probably should have, given that there are so many false/practice alarms.”
“After the initial shock, I was just glad that the alarms worked this time, unlike during the 1995 Mission Park fire,” Safyan said.
Murphy said, “People got back into the building very quickly this time. We provided blankets, but didn’t stretch for anything else. I can understand that people were unhappy about camping on the tile and chairs. Events like this inevitably cause annoyance and discomfort. . . . I am very happy that discomfort is all we had to deal with, since this was potentially a very dangerous fire. All the systems worked, students were good about it and thankfully all that got hurt was old Dodd House itself.”
Students all over campus have felt the repercussions of the Dodd fire because the Dodd Dining Hall will be closed until the Health Inspector can check damages.
Robert Alcala ’98 said, “Many students have been inconvenienced greatly by the temporary closure of Dodd dining hall. I hate to think of the detrimental effects on the quality of student life (and the effects on faculty who meet with students over lunch or dinner) that would occur if Dodd were ever closed permanently.”