While many students were away during Spring Break, a fire broke out on Spring Street on Sunday March 29 at 2:28 a.m. Six businesses and six residential apartments were affected. The fire started on the outside of the Colonial Pizza building and spread down the street to Universal Health Foods, Cobble Cafe, Gatsby’s, Clarksburg Bread Co. and House of Walsh, affecting a substantial percentage of Williamstown’s commercial business.
According to Chief of the Williamstown Fire Department Edward McGowan, the fire was electrical and started in a steel conduit below the roof line behind Colonial. It spread through the conduit, igniting more fires in the walls of the building as well as the outside. The whole block of buildings affected is wired together, which is why the fire spread to the south through the rear walls of the other five businesses.
Security Officer Robin Hart was on duty that night patrolling the campus when he discovered the fire. “I was passing Morgan and noticed a really strong smoke smell. At first I thought it was a fire in Morgan,” Hart said. “ Myself and Officer Scott Braman checked Goffs and then Colonial Pizza where smoke and flames were coming out of the building. We could see sparks and knew it was an electrical fire.”
After calling 911, Hart said he and Braman evacuated the apartments above Goffs. However, they were unable to open four rooms. “Once the fire department arrived I reported to the fire chief and he gave me an axe to chop down the doors of the rooms we were unable to open,” Hart said. “We found one woman still asleep so we helped her out.” In addition to evacuating this woman, Hart, Braman and Police Officer David Limeu assisted the fire department, police and emergency evacuation team until 5 p.m.
“People look at us as heroes but it was just in the line of duty,” Hart said. “It’s times like these when our additional training pays off and allows us to act quickly.”
Assistant Director of Security David Boyer was also called in to relocate faculty and students living in apartments affected by the fire. All residents have been relocated.
“The fire department was very quick to respond, they really take it seriously,” Hart said. “It’s good for students to know there are good emergency crews around because students usually don’t appreciate them until they need them.”
“The Fire Department has done its job,” McGowan said. “We put out the fire and investigated its cause so the situation has now been handed over to the building inspector and the building owners.”
Williamstown Manager Steven Patch said a total of 72,000 gallons of water was pumped from the buildings’ basements. The damage was in excess of $1 million.
Williamstown was declared a National Disaster Area by the Governor of Massachusetts in order to allow the state to allocate money to help with damages from the fire. Williamstown Manager Steven Patch requested help from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. This led to the passage of an act allocating low-interest loans to the businesses and residencies affected by the fire.
“The Williamstown Department of Inspection Services is also looking into a cost effective way of rehabilitating the buildings,” Patch said.
Students Sarah Malcolm ’98 and Elise London ’98, who live in an off-campus apartment above Clarksburg Bread Co., have had to move out of their apartment and stay in campus housing until their building receives a certificate of approval to re-open by the Department of Inspection Services.
“We drove 20 hours to Hilton Head, South Carolina that Saturday night,” London said.
“We were sitting on the beach drinking Coronas, looking at the sunset and talking about how lucky we were,” Malcolm said. “Then we called Elise’s parents that night and they told us about the fire. Everything is so relative.”
“I thought it was a big April Fool’s joke by my father,” London added.
The fire stopped right outside the girls’ apartment door and sprinklers went off in all of the building except their apartment. The only damage in their apartment was a four foot section of the rug by the door damaged by water. However, their apartment has no power, heat or hot water and all of their belongings have been moved off the walls and into the center of the room. “It was as if we were dead and our apartment was being cleaned out,” London said about their homecoming after break.
“We are so lucky we didn’t lose anything but it is our senior spring and now we have to give up our apartment and live on campus again,” Malcolm said. “We’re determined not to let it ruin our fun though.”
“We’ve been eating out a lot because we have no meal plan and don’t have a kitchen at the moment,” London said.
The girls are currently living on the fourth floor of West College in two rooms that were previously unused. “The Housing Office has been very cooperative,” London and Malcolm said. “They called our parents right away and the fact the college had two sets of two rooms we could choose to live in is amazing since we don’t pay rent to the college.”
“We will be able to move back in definitely by May 1 but hopefully sooner, as soon as the building inspector comes,” Malcolm said. “It’s a good thing we live above businesses because that keeps the renovation and clean-up moving along since they have to re-open as soon as possible.”
Other Williams students have not been directly affected by the fire but are feeling the results of the closing of the affected businesses on Spring Street. In particular, students commented about missing the ability to order late night Colonial Pizza.
“I was shocked when I heard about the fire. I just thought how fortunate it was that the college was out because I could imagine with 2000 college kids running around things could have gotten pretty crazy,” Todd Rogers ’01 said. “Personally, I’m suffering from severe [Clarksburg Bread Co.] Baby Bread withdrawal.”
“At least Lickety Split is still standing…I mean, after all, it’s the ice cream that matters the most,” Deborah Frisone ’00 said.
However, other students are only now becoming aware there even was a fire on Spring Street. “Some of our close friends didn’t even know we had to move out of our apartment,” London and Malcolm said.
Building inspector Michael Card said, “Fire damage was fairly minimal and most damage was from the smoke and the water.” According to Card there was not much structural damage as a result of the fire. A report from an engineer investigating the scene said some roof framing would have to be replaced as well as a portion of the rear wall of Colonial. The block has to be rewired and the heating system must be replaced because the basement was flooded.
Card said portions of the first floor of the building owned by Scarfoni Carver Associates, including Gatsby’s, Clarksburg Bread Co. and House of Walsh, will be opened within the next week or two. However, the apartments above these businesses will not be approved for a longer period of time.
Businesses located in the Kowen Nominee Trust building, Colonial Pizza, Universal Health Foods and Cobble Cafe, will also be closed for a longer period of time because the fire damage is most severe in that building.