Tuesday morning’s fire in Thurston Hall, which cost an estimated $10,000 dollars in damage and left one student in critical condition, was the dorm’s worst fire in recent memory. But over two decades ago, Thurston suffered another tragedy, when a fifth floor blaze injured dozens of students.
It all started when no less than 11 false fire alarms plagued Thurston through the fall semester of 1977 and into the spring of 1978. They continued periodically for the rest of the semester, sometimes more than once per night, prompting outrage and apathy from residents of the hall. Not even a serious fire at Providence College that year, which killed seven students, could spur compliance with the repeated false alarms. When they heard an alarm, Thurston residents began to simply ignore it.
One refused to leave until he “sees smoke,” The Hatchet reported at the time. Another student warned his peers that fire drills had turned into social events, “but when the social event turns to tragedy, people won’t think it’s funny anymore.”
Tragedy came the following spring, on April 19, 1979.
At 3:46 a.m., District officials received the first report of a fire on Thurston’s fifth floor. The drills and alarms had failed: the fifth floor fire had melted one of the alarms, and a number of students were trapped in their rooms. The building had no sprinklers or smoke detectors; the Red Cross, three blocks away, was never notified. Some residents who had already made it outside dissuaded several students from jumping to escape the fire. One did.
Occasional fires had broken out in various fraternity houses and dormitories over the previous decades, with more than one being fatal. But this was the worst fire in the University’s history, because of the tremendous loss of property involved and the structural and logistic failures that had accompanied the sudden event. It was the screams of students on the fifth floor, not the faulty fire alarms, which saved the most lives.
In the end, 36 students were injured and nine were hospitalized. The entire fifth floor was covered in a layer of soot and a number of rooms were completely gutted. No cause of the fire was ever determined, as the damage was too severe, though rumors circulated that a cigarette had fallen onto a mattress.
Two injured students filed suit against the University for negligence, alleging that the faulty fire alarms and lack of a sound fire plan caused their injuries. The University spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on repairs and renovations to its older dormitories as a result of the fire.
-The author is a former research editor at The Hatchet and is the author of “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit: A critical portrait of Dr. Cloyd Heck Marvin.”