When Christina Whalen SC ’15 heard the faint sound of a fire alarm from her room in Dorsey Residence Hall on the afternoon of Oct. 8, she wasn’t concerned. She assumed that someone had forgotten to take something out of the oven or that someone left one of the building’s alarmed doors open.
“I sort of disregarded at first,” Whalen said. “I thought, ‘Oh, the alarms are just going off again.’”
When she started to smell what she thought was burning marshmallows, she assumed that a Harvey Mudd College dorm was having a bonfire. Again, she thought nothing of it.
Then she heard someone shouting “Fire! Fire!” in the hallway.
Whalen looked out of her window to discover that smoke was curling out from the window of the dorm room next to hers. The resident of the room that caught on fire declined to comment for this article.
The fire was reportedly the result of a freak occurrence: the setting sun hit the magnifying side of a cosmetic mirror that was in a first floor Dorsey room at just the right angle, causing the floor to ignite.
Libby Reyff SC ’16 lives across the Dorsey courtyard from Whalen’s room and the room of the fire. When she heard the fire alarm, she looked out into the hallway to see what was going on. She didn’t see anything, but when she turned back into her dorm, she saw the flames across the courtyard through her window.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Reyff said. She called Campus Safety on her cell phone, then ran to the hallway that had the room with the fire. She knocked on the doors of the neighboring rooms to see if anyone was there.
The Scripps College Guide to Student Life advises that in the case of a fire, students should activate the closest fire alarm, evacuate the building and report the location of the fire to Campus Safety. But Whalen and Reyff were more focused on extinguishing the fire.
“You can prepare and prepare for a fire,” Whalen said. “But when the moment actually strikes, there’s no way to prepare for adrenaline.”
Reyff ran back to her room, emptied her plastic trash bin and ran to the fountain in the courtyard. Since the windows of the dorm had broken from the high temperature, Reyff and Whalen were able to use the trash bin as a bucket, taking water from the fountain and throwing it on the flames through the window.
“It was maybe five or seven minutes from the point of [Reyff] running down the hallway yelling ‘Fire!’ to the fire being out and us standing there with a wet trash can going, ‘What do we do now?'” Whalen said.
Soon after, ten members of Scripps’s maintenance and housing staff came to the scene to help put out the rest of the fire with fire extinguishers.
Niel Errickson, Director of Facilities at Scripps, said that responding to fires is a responsibility for members of the staff.
“Liability-wise, it was kind of bad,” Reyff said.
Soon after, Campus Safety, Claremont Fire Department and Scripps administration members arrived. By then, the fire was completely extinguished.
“The dorm-wide sirens didn’t start going off until after the fire had been put out. It was like an afterthought,” Whalen said. The residents of both Dorsey and connecting Browning Hall were evacuated.
When Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Bekki Lee sent out an e-mail to the student body informing them of the fire, there was no mention of Reyff and Whalen’s efforts. Lee wrote, “[The] Claremont Fire Department arrived on the scene and immediately put the fire out.”
Whalen, her roommate Mikayla Raymond SC ’15, another student living nearby in the hallway and the resident of the room that caught on fire were all relocated to other dorms so that the damaged rooms could undergo repairs. Whalen and Raymond lived in Routt Residence Hall for five days before moving back to their room.
Errickson said that the maintenance staff repainted the dorm rooms and the hallway to help get rid of the smell. They also fanned out the hallway and filtered the air with an ionized air filter. In addition, the students’ clothes, blankets and pillows were dry-cleaned.
“Most of the damage was done to the curtains,” Errickson said. Although all of the residence halls’ curtains are fire-retardent, Errickson said that the treatment doesn’t last forever.
But Errickson said, “It was such a perfect storm that I highly doubt we’ll ever see it again.”
The repairs have been completed and all of the students moved back, except the resident of the room that caught on fire, who had been relocated to Gabrielle Jungers-Winkler Residence Hall after the fire and decided to stay in the new room.
The total cost of the repairs was not enough to fulfill the school’s insurance deductible, Errickson said. The money used for the repairs and dry-cleaning will be taken out of the school’s building and operating expenses.
Although Whalen now knows where the two closest fire extinguishers to her room are, she said that the school could make some improvements to its fire safety.
“There’s no real way to tell when it’s a door alarm or a fire alarm, unless you leave the door open purposefully and wait for an alarm to go off,” Whalen said.
“It’s like they talk about what to do in the case of a fire a million times,” she added. “But when it actually happened … I don’t think everyone knew exactly what to do.”
Lee says that if students notice a fault in the school’s emergency preparedness system, they should report it to the administration.
“It’s easy to not make emergency preparedness a priority in our day-to-day lives,” Lee said. “But it’s always really useful to get feedback.”
Lee said that students should expect an unannounced fire drill in the coming semester.
In the meantime, she said, students should remember: “When in doubt, evacuate.”