Residents of Sage dorm huddled outside and in neighboring buildings for more than an hour in the pre-dawn hours on November 24 as the result of a small smoke fire.
Williamstown Fire Chief Eddie McGowan reported that the alarm was set off by a smoldering couch on the second floor of Sage B. The students were forced to remain outside of the dorm while local firefighters cleared away the smoke.
McGowan said the fire was caused by “careless disposal of smoking material.” Specifically, he said sometime during the night a misplaced cigarette butt burnt a hole in the couch.
According to Security Officer Robin Hart, security officers responding to the alarm attempted to put out the smoking couch with a fire extinguisher. When this effort failed, they called the Williamstown Fire Department and began clearing out those students who hadn’t left after the alarm sounded from the building.
McGowan said two trucks and 20 firefighters arrived at Sage within five minutes. One truck returned to the fire station, and the remaining fighters solved the problem by removing the couch from the building and spraying it with a hose.
However, McGowan said it was then necessary to de-fumigate the building.
“Once we realized what was going on and got the sofa out of the building, then it became our responsibility to keep the students from reentering an atmosphere that wouldn’t be good for them,” he said. “We used pressure fans to remove not only the smoke, but the small concentrations of carbon monoxide that we were picking up.”
“[The smoke] spread in the hallways, and that’s when it became tough,” McGowan added. “We were trying to remove smoke from three different levels.”
This process lasted for one hour, during which time most students either waited in the neighboring Williams entries or made their way over to Baxter Lounge.
Although the fire was fairly minor, officials say it was the most serious fire-related incident on campus since a fire in Mission three years ago prompted a review of the College’s fire code.
College Fire Marshal Joe Moran said the sensitivity of the three-year-old alarm system in the Freshman Quad, which has sometimes been criticized by students, prevented the situation from becoming serious.
“The alarm went at a very early stage, while the couch was still just smoking and before it could burst into flames,” Moran said. “That is the reason why we want [the sensitive alarms].”
In order to avoid a recurrence of similar incidents, Moran advised smarter smoking habits and cleaner rooms.
“If students are going to smoke, they’re supposed to be in their rooms, and they should have some appropriate container to put the cigarette out in,” Moran said. “And a little better housekeeping might help too, so that you can see where things are. Keep the rooms a little tidier so when you put out cigarettes you can have an area that’s clear and safe from fire.”
McGowan echoed Moran’s call for increased responsibility in this area.
“The College basically has a good fire prevention plan in effect,” McGowan said. “But if somebody goes against the rules and regulations, this is what can happen.”
Last Friday, a week and a half after the fire, students in Sage again awoke to the piercing sound of the alarm. The system sounded twice within five minutes around 2:45 a.m.
Despite the earlier fire, the majority of Sage residents said they did not treat these recent alarms any more seriously than past ones.
Yvon Hopps ’02 said he took his time evacuating the building.
“There was no change whatsoever in my reaction to last night’s two alarms, despite the fire last week,” he said. “I really don’t see the point of getting out of bed for an alarm set off by some imbecile making popcorn at 3 a.m. anymore. It’s starting to get ridiculous.”
However, the experience of the previous fire did a make a difference for Maggie Burr ’02.
“This time I grabbed a blanket and my teddy bear,” she said.