Thurston Hall residents living on the same floor as a student severely burned in a fire Tuesday said their exit from the building was delayed because of crowded stairwells.
Many ninth floor residents also admitted they did not leave the building quickly because they thought the fire alarm was just another of the dorm’s notorious false alarms. The fire was contained to Room 913, but parts of the ninth floor hallways were filled with thick black smoke (see “Student still critical”).
The freshman dorm is GW’s largest, with a capacity of 1,049, and it has two stairwells.
“When I walked down, it got really crowded around the sixth floor and the fireman made us stand in a straight line,” said Kimberly Steimer, a ninth floor resident. “It was really intimidating.”
Steimer said she thought the alarm was false and went to go brush her teeth but ultimately decided to leave the room because a roommate left. Other students thought the alarm was false as well.
“I thought it was a drill and went back to bed,” ninth floor resident Kate Smith said. “But then my roommate came in screaming that it was real and to get out of bed.”
In November, Alan Etter, a fire department spokesman, said safety is at risk when students experience a high number of false alarms and begin to assume that any fire alarm is a false one.
“There is a danger of building in a sense of complacency when they hear these fire alarms going off all the time and there is nothing,” Etter said.
Ian Sullivan, another ninth floor resident, said the stairwells became crowded when emergency responders were coming up the stairs while residents were moving down. Once the firefighters and police passed, students were able to move down the stairs more easily.
“(The stairwells) were really crowded, but that was because there were a dozen police officers and fire fighters coming up,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan also added that he “certainly wasn’t rushing” when the fire alarm went off and said he knows that “a lot of people just sat in their room” until firefighters started banging on doors to let residents know they needed to leave.
Tracy Schario, GW’s director of media relations, said she had heard complaints from students that the evacuation was not orderly. She attributed this to “a natural sense of anxiety.”
“Just given the sheer numbers, there’s a natural collection of large numbers of people trying to move down,” Schario said.
“When you have a lot of people in the stairway in that situation, it’s hard to overcome that natural anxiety,” she continued.
Schario also urged students to always heed fire alarms in any building.
“Whenever you hear an alarm, you should always take it seriously, even if it’s just a drill,” she said. “That’s an individual’s personal responsibility.”
The fire started when a portable electric grill made contact with a student’s bed sheets. Portable electric grills are prohibited in rooms without kitchens by the Community Living and Learning Center.
Schario said Residential Property Management conducted safety inspections in Thurston over spring break, but it is unknown whether the grill was in sight in the room at the time.
Last semester, the decision was made to reduce the number of health and safety inspections from four to two per year after residential management took over responsibility for the examinations from CLLC.
In November, Thane Tuttle, director of the Student Association’s Residence Hall Renewal Project, said the decision could have dangerous effects for students.
In an interview Wednesday, Tuttle said that by inspecting the rooms over spring break, residential management did its job, but it lacks the ability to enforce CLLC rules.
“The problem is you don’t have enough people on the ground inspecting for health and safety inspections just like this,” Tuttle said. “Even if RPM had seen it, it’s not their job to enforce.”
-Larry Adler contributed to this report.