When Secret Service officers spotted a fire in freshman Kevin McLaughlin’s ninth floor room in Thurston Hall two weeks ago, the blaze was not being stopped by the building’s hallway sprinkler system. Now, some are questioning whether in-room fire suppression systems could have prevented the severe burns that have left McLaughlin in critical condition since the March 22 incident.
“If there had been a sprinkler system in Kevin’s room, I think he would be in a lot better condition than he is in now,” said Timothy McLaughlin, Kevin McLaughlin’s father, in an interview Friday night. “Kevin is still fighting for his life in an intensive care unit.”
D.C. fire officials said the blaze was caused by a portable electric grill that made contact with Kevin McLaughlin’s sheets. Metropolitan Police officials took up the investigation, but did not return phone calls for this story.
While sprinklers in the building’s hallways prevented the flames from spreading outside the freshman’s room, 913, they did nothing to protect the student while he was in his room.
Timothy McLaughlin said his son is still breathing with the assistance of a respirator and is unable to eat conventional food. He added that the University should seriously reconsider its sprinkler system and fire safety plans.
“The University is charging top dollar for room and board, and in my opinion, those facilities are substandard,” said Timothy McLaughlin, who said he was not considering a lawsuit against GW.
He added that he had a “productive” 90-minute phone conversation with University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, who said administrators would look into its fire safety program.
Eric Hougen, a project manager in the Office of Business and Operations, said the University is investigating the fire and has not made any decisions on possible changes in Thurston or other residence halls.
Thurston and several other older dorms on campus utilize a sprinkler system that is placed in hallways but not in individual rooms. Newer halls, such as Ivory Tower and New Hall have the fire suppression system in each unit.
Ed Comeau, director of the Center for Campus Fire Safety, said a sprinkler system limited to hallways is designed to save the building, and not its occupants. He added that in-room sprinklers “certainly would have made a difference” in the Thurston fire.
“Once you run the piping for the general sprinklers, it doesn’t take much more to get it in the rooms,” he said. “The real cost comes from pumping water up to the higher floors.”
Comeau said that perhaps the most startling aspect of the ninth-floor blaze was the fact that a University Police officer had to manually pull an alarm to let students know there was a fire. Before that, no warning system had gone off in the building and nearby Secret Service agents notified UPD after seeing the flames.
“Without knowing all the details, the fact that the fire got that large that it could be detected from outside is disturbing,” he said.
He added that University officials should make sure they are constantly educating students to the risk of fire so they take all alarms seriously. Some Thurston residents said they did not immediately respond to the alarm two weeks ago since they thought it was one of the building’s many false alerts.
Senior Thane Tuttle, who is in charge of Student Association President Omar Woodard’s Residence Hall Renewal Project, said the fire also brought the issue of health and safety inspections to light. Last semester, the University announced that it would no longer be conducting dorm inspections while students are in their rooms. Officials cut down the number of yearly inspections from four to two and conduct them during academic breaks.
Electric grills such as the one that caused the fire are banned in residence halls.
“I would say there was a good chance a health and safety inspection could have prevented this fire, but if there was one it could have happened anyway,” Tuttle said. “The point is there could be bigger problems in rooms that we don’t know about.”
This article appeared in the April 4, 2005 issue of the Hatchet.