This week in Williams history: Radiation hoaxes, the Bacchus Club, and noxious fumes

Dover Sikes

“This Week in Williams History” is a column dedicated to looking back at memorable moments in the College’s past through articles in the Record. This week in history, the College dealt with radiation hoaxes, an out-of-control party, and noxious fumes. 

Oct. 31, 1978: ‘Radiation hoax wakes WCFM

In October 1978, late-night listeners of WCFM experienced a “mild panic” as they tuned into worrying news that fallout from a nuclear accident in Canada was now floating towards Williamstown. WCFM DJ Fred Kooperstein ’79, reported receiving a call at 1:55 a.m. from a man with a “mature voice” claiming to be a member of the New England Weather Associates (NEWA). The caller said that a nuclear reactor west of Quebec had melted down, sending radioactive matter toward Western Massachusetts. The caller urged precautionary measures of staying inside and keeping windows closed until daybreak. 

Kooperstein announced the news on the air and then promptly called NEWA for confirmation. The phone line to NEWA was not working, making confirmation impossible, at which point  Kooperstein called Campus Safety and Security and the Williamstown Police Department (WPD). 

A couple of minutes after his announcement, Kooperstein realized that he “might have been conned.” He returned on air, announced the possibility of a hoax, and continued broadcasting for 30 more minutes. 

Later that day, Kooperstein called NEWA president John Hockridge. Hockridge said that while there were emergency members of the NEWA standing by, there was no one in the office when Kooperstein called to confirm the tip.  Hockridge also compared the call to a recent threatening report to local police departments by an individual identifying himself as a member of “the Weathermen,” perhaps in reference to the left-wing militant organization, the Weather Underground. Hockridge speculated that they could have been made by the same person. The FBI ordered an investigation and determined the calls to be hoaxes.

Nov. 4, 1986: ‘Police investigate Bacchus party; charges may be filed

An out-of-control party in November 1986 caught the attention of the WPD after a fight broke out. The event, which was held in Dodd House, was sponsored by a student organization called the Bacchus Club and featured 20 beer kegs.

Witnesses agreed that the fight escalated from  comments about the Williams vs. Union College football game that had taken place earlier that day. It involved a Williamstown resident who attended Union, his girlfriend, and two Williams students. Yet narratives of the night were mixed, with some saying a broken window in the front door of Dodd had been smashed, and others saying it had been hit accidentally.

Then-WPD Chief Joseph Zoito stressed that the event was also being investigated for underage drinking. “20 kegs of beer, divided by 400 students, that’s 15 cups of beer everyone’s drunk, right?” he said at the time. He highlighted that the minimum age for drinking essentially eliminated three class years from drinking eligibility and reminded readers that furnishing or providing a minor with alcohol was a violation of the law. “Learning how to drink isn’t part of your college curriculum,” he added.

One Bacchus member who did not want to be named commented, “It was just a case of someone getting riled up at a party, and the police really blew it out of proportion.”

Meanwhile, Zoito said, “I have no doubt in my mind that criminal charges will be filed.”

Nov. 5, 1991: ‘Noxious fumes cause Sawyer evacuation

Shortly after 7 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 28, 1991, several people in the lower level of Sawyer Library complained of burning eyes and throats, and dizziness. 

“We came to work that night and it reeked,” Jen Sargent ’93 said. “Our supervisor called security. They came to investigate what it was, and they started feeling so nauseous they decided to close the bottom floor of the library.” 

The smell was described as similar to paint fumes and nail polish. Students reported experiencing adverse reactions that continued into the next day. “I felt really drowsy in the library on Monday around 5 p.m. and  fell asleep for a long time,” Patricia Lee ’92 said. “The next day I had an awful headache.”

The next morning, officials discovered that the fumes originated from sealant used on the concrete floors of one of the mechanical rooms of the lower level, which was being pumped through the ventilation system. 

Building and Grounds Director Bill Wassenar said of the incident, “Normally in a construction project there is no one around. It’s not often that you pour concrete in a building while it is being used.”

He added, “I’ve never seen anything like this happen in the 27 years I have been here.”