At 3:45 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 1987, unidentified persons set fire to a garbage can in Burton Hall. It was a time when the deafening drone of the fire alarm had to be taken seriously. The fire endangered the lives of 120 UR students.
Then-freshmen and resident of Burton Hall, Mike Westerman, saw the fire right outside his door and did not know how to react. However, Tim Nolan, a freshman at the time as well, saved the day and extinguished the flames before the Rochester Fire Department arrived in response to the activated smoke detectors. He mentioned that he only knew how to properly use a fire extinguisher because Chemistry Professor Douglas Turner had demonstrated its use during lab lecture. Many other residents in Burton were shocked at the reality of the situation.
Then-UR Fire Marshal John Hall commented that fire drills were usually taken lightly by students but this occurrence put them into perspective.
The Rochester Fire Department classified the crime as second-degree arson because it transpired in an occupied building and was set intentionally, with careless disregard for human life.
Fortunately, the fire did not spread throughout the building due to the fire-resistant wall covering and carpeting that had recently been installed in Burton.
The fire was determined to be intentional as there were no ignition devices, such as a discarded cigarette, found at the scene. Also, the fire had burned quickly and was not the smoldering-type that was emblematic of a fire caused by a cigarette.
If the perpetrators were apprehended, they would have to answer to the Rochester Police Department. The result could be imprisonment, yet it depended on the background of the suspects. If the Rochester Police Department decided not to press charges, proper disciplinary action would have to be taken by UR if the suspects were students. Then-UR Intercessor Jody Asbury emphasized that she hoped people would come forth if they were aware of any information for the safety of the UR community.
Hall reiterated that it was extremely frightening for the UR community to witness an act of arson that jeopardized the lives of 120 UR students. ‘… one-hundred-twenty students (residents of Burton Hall) are here to get an education; not die in a fire,” Hall said. The UR administration was firm in expressing to the school that they would not tolerate such behavior, even if it was in this rare event, an act of jest.
Next time the fire alarm begins to sound at an ungodly hour, think about the possibilities and leave the building. You never know when the fire detector will go off not because someone burned their eggs but because there is a real fire, started intentionally or unintentionally.
Venkateswaran is a member of the class of 2011.