PU dorm fire injures two students

March 23, 1993

The Princeton Packet

PU dorm fire injures two students

Blaze guts Blair suites; firemen make rooftop rescue

By Laura Lorber

Staff Writer

A blaze started by a discarded cigarette gutted a pair of dormitory suites in Princeton University’s Blair Hall early Monday morning, forcing a rooftop rescue and the evacuation of more than 100 students.

Two students sustained minor injuries in the fire, which started around 5:30 a.m. in the nearly century-old building on University Place.

The seven students occupying the two third-floor suites escaped safely, with only one, Stuart Barry, receiving minor burns, said borough Fire Official William Drake.

Sophomore Prisdha Dharma, who lives in an adjacent room, had to be rescued from the roof by a ladder truck after he climbed through a skylight to escape smoke that had spread to his bedroom.

Investigators believe the fire started accidentally in a sofa in the suite’s common room by a discarded cigarette, according to Mr. Drake.

Sophomore Bill Taylor said he was awakened by the heat in his room, saw the heavy smoke and ran into the others’ rooms yelling. By the time the students had all fled, the rooms were ablaze and the smoke was thick, he said.

“We all barely made it,” Mr. Taylor said.

The fire spread quickly, with flames engulfing all five rooms in the two suites. Black smoke spread to the rooms next door, said Fire Chief Raymond Bianco.

Fire alarms in the dorm went off at 5:39 a.m. Fire trucks from the Princeton Engine Co. No. 1 arrived six minutes later and firefighters put out the blaze in 30 minutes, according to Chief Bianco.

The five rooms were completely gutted, he said. The fire was confined to the two suites but adjacent rooms suffered some smoke damage, he said.

When the alarms sounded, University Public Safety employees knocked on doors and evacuated more than 100 students from the dormitory, according to university…

… spokesman Justin Harmon.

One resident, whose name was not released, was sent to the campus infirmary for treatment for smoke inhalation, he said. Both injured students were released later in the morning.

“I lost everything I own,” said Mr. Taylor, standing outside the charred stone building with his friends Monday afternoon.

Around noon, the students waited to be allowed back into their room to salvage what they could from the ashes. They stood under the broken windows in front of the stone arch and stared at the blackened bits of belongings.

“Just say Bill Taylor is turning toward a higher power at this moment,” Mr. Taylor said.

Looking at a melted mobile phone recovered from rubble, roommate Andrew Lapham said, “Wow.”

The flames left the rooms hollow and black. From a door, one could see a blistered computer sitting on a scorched desk against a wall.

With faces still flushed from the heat, the students recounted the events of the morning.

Mr. Taylor said he woke up when it got very hot in his room. He saw smoke billowing out the door and started screaming, “Fire! Fire!” Thad McBride, 19, said he opened his eyes when his roommate Ben Biddle came running into his room yelling.

“It wasn’t the main fire (he saw), so I didn’t think it was a big deal,” Mr. McBride said. “My first thought was, ‘I’ll just put it out.’ I just took my time and put on some clothes, grabbed my wallet and slowly started for the door. Then I hit a wall of smoke and ducked down and kind of waddled out of the room.”

Mr. Lapham attempted a daring rescue when they thought someone was still inside, Mr. McBride said. Dressed in only boxer shorts, he raced up the stairs but was driven back down by the thick smoke, he said. Fortunately the missing friend had already made it to safety, he said.

It was Mr. McBride’s good fortune not to have unpacked a suitcase from spring break. The suitcase survived the fire. The students will be assigned other rooms until theirs are re-novated, said Mr. Hannon.

Some of the roommates said they would be getting in touch with their parents to see what insurance they might have. In the meantime, they said they were enjoying the hospitality and generosity offered by other students.

“Everyone’s been really nice,” Mr. McBride said.

Mr. Dharma, who was back -in his room Monday evening, said the building smelled of burning plastic from the melted computers. The one wall he shared with the gutted suites was gray from smoke. He said he believed there had been a party in the suites the night before the fire and had heard a loud radio through the wall at about 10 p.m.

Mr. Dharma said the alarm woke him up, but he stayed in his room thinking it was only a test. Soon after, he began to smell smoke and saw it coming out of the electric sockets.

He avoided the stairs because he figured the fire was close since the alarm was so loud. He climbed out the skylight and scaled the roof. He sat for five or six minutes in his shorts and shirt before he was rescued by firefighters, he said.

Fifty firefighters from all three Princeton fire companies responded to the call. Seven trucks came to the scene. The Princeton Junction Volunteer Fire Co. provided the ladder truck and rescued the student from the roof. Firefighters from Kingston served as backup at the Princeton Engine Co. No. 3.

Chief Bianco said said the fire was very hot and spread rapidly. The plaster walls tend to contain heat like an oven, he said. In addition, the building has wood that is old and very dry, he said.

Firefighters ran into trouble only once when they tried to tap a third fire hydrant on University Place for a backup, but it had been bent over or broken by a snowplow, according to the chief. Firefighters used one at Chambers and Nassau streets instead, he said.

More than 100 students stood shivering in the courtyard watching the firefighters combat the blaze. Naomi Weinberg said she and her roommates were worried about their friends in the suites right above the arch until they saw they were safe.

But many in Blair did not come out of the rooms right after the fire alarm sounded. Some stayed asleep or sat in their beds for 10 minutes or more until they realized it was a real fire and heard urgent sounding voices in the courtyard, she said.

The fire alarms go off “so often you don’t take them that seriously,” Ms. Weinberg said.

The Princeton Fire Department last responded to a call at the university last month, Chief Bianco said. ”

Dorm fires arc not out of the ordinary,” he said.

The university holds two fire drills each year, in September and October, according to Mr. Harmon.

Students should take fire alarms more seriously, Chief Bianco warned.

“Someday it could turn into a disaster,” he said. “To me, if you hear that fire alarm you’d better be out of there.”

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