Seton Hall U. fire disaster remnant of Thurston’s 1979 close call

A blaze that broke out at Seton Hall University last week in West Orange, N.J., bears a close resemblance to a fire that ripped through the fifth floor of Thurston Hall April 19, 1979.

The SHU fire resulted in three fatalities and 63 injuries Jan. 19 in Boland Hall, a six-story dormitory that housed 640 freshmen residents, according to an SHU press release.

Boland Hall had no sprinkler system because the 48-year-old building was constructed before a New Jersey law required their installation. More than 20 years ago, Thurston Hall was without sprinklers during a blaze in which 34 were injured, three seriously. Thurston was constructed before a 1978 D.C. law mandated sprinklers.

Both blazes broke out at about 4 a.m. on the 19th day of the month in freshmen residence halls. Many students in Boland Hall at SHU delayed leaving the dormitory when the alarm first sounded because they assumed it was another false alarm, The Los Angeles Times reported last week. SHU records show 18 false alarms occurred since September 1999.

The April 1979 Washington Post article noted 17 false alarms in Thurston from July 1978 to April 1979 and 18 minor fires around campus. After the 1979 fire, Thurston students told GW Hatchet reporters that they thought it was another false alarm.

I’m so lucky I wasn’t stoned last night, a Thurston Hall resident told The Post. I wouldn’t have ever gotten up.

The D.C. fire marshal later stated the fire was caused by incendiary ignition, or a deliberate human action. The fire damage cost $70,000 to repair.

The fire in Thurston was under control within 15 minutes, according to The Hatchet. But it took more than 45 minutes to vacate all residents from the building. Students interviewed said the hallways and stairwells were overflowing with residents and smoke.

The fire bell, which rang in Thurston that morning, only lasted for a minute because of a short circuit in the residence hall’s electronic system. The system cut the lights on the top five floors of the building – the same floors that were overwhelmed with dark smoke, fire officials said.

The Washington Star reported that the D.C. Fire Department had not conducted its annual safety inspection of the hall, making the inspection three months overdue.

The following week, the GW Student Association passed a resolution criticizing the University administration for gross negligence and inaction in the time leading up to the Thurston fire. The building had no sprinklers, no smoke detectors, inadequate escape routes and alarm system, no backup alarm system and overcrowded rooms, according to a Hatchet article after the fire.

The University blamed the fire’s outcome on repeated student-set false alarms that inspired the freshmen not to take the threat of a fire seriously.

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