Students attending their third day of classes were evacuated Wednesday afternoon from five academic buildings when an electrical fire broke out in the basement of Bell Hall.
“We found the problem before it got out of control,” said Lt. Jim Carpenter, of D.C. Fire Department’s Engine 23. “It was a small electrical fire but with enough damage to evacuate.”
The fire was contained before spreading to the rest of the building, said Carpenter, whose team responded to the call before 2 p.m.
Classes were expected to resume Thursday morning as scheduled, with help from generators to restore electricity, contractor S. Rock Esterbrook said late Wednesday night. But some classes have been canceled and others have been moved.
The fire caused minimal damage to the mechanical room where it originated but sent smoke and fumes throughout the building, forcing the evacuation of Bell, Lisner, Stuart, Corcoran and Sampson halls at around 1:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Students and faculty poured out of the buildings and onto the Quad, said Professor Paul Spiegler, whose class was canceled because of the fire.
Spiegler, who was teaching in a second-floor lab in Bell Hall when the alarm sounded, said he smelled smoke but thought it was coming from construction outside his classroom.
“You really smelled it on the second floor,” Spiegler said. “There was a guy welding at Lisner and roofers using hot sodder on Woodhull (House). I thought they were causing the fumes.”
After the initial fire alarm, during which only Bell Hall was evacuated, classes resumed for a short time, Spiegler said.
University officials and the D.C. fire marshal ordered a second and permanent evacuation of all the buildings that have the same power source as Bell Hall, in case the fire had not been contained.
Shortly after, the Potomac Electric and Power Company completely shut off the power source in the confined area.
Anthony Jones, a GW electrician, surveyed the damaged current transformer, which he said was locked by a wooden frame that caught on fire when the transformer overheated. The frame was installed two years ago during renovations, he said.
“(University officials and the fire department) did all they could do and caught it right before it could have blown up,” Jones said. “But still this is all guess work on what actually happened.”
A University Police officer who asked not to be identified said a contractor working in Bell Hall told officials in GW’s safety office that the transformer overheated earlier this week.
No one from the safety office or the University’s facilities department was available for comment. Carpenter said the room had very little ventilation.
Carrol Shorter, evening manager in GW’s facilities office, said her department had minimal knowledge of the cause of the fire or when power would be entirely restored.
Shorter’s department issued a notice Wednesday after the fire announcing that Corcoran, Lisner and Stuart halls would be closed for the rest of the evening because of electrical service problems. The notice said power could be restored early Thursday.
Two giant diesel generators were hauled onto the Quad Wednesday night in an attempt to temporarily restore power for Thursday’s classes. Electrician Bob Sell said the generators probably will run until the damages have been repaired and PEPCO is able to restore power to the buildings.
Spiegler, who is the laboratory coordinator for the biology department, said the power outage is causing a major problem for faculty members conducting experiments in Bell Hall.
“Everybody is upset because there are all sorts of experiments going on. There are faculty working on development studies on animals and specimens being kept in refrigerators and freezers and we can’t get to them. It could be tragic if they don’t fix it.”