There was no time to spare when student firefighters from Saint Michael's Fire and Rescue squad showed up in zero degree temperatures at 3:36 a.m. early Monday to fight the first major structure fire on the St. Mike's campus that any student or veteran town firefighters could remember.
The fire, which investigators believe started accidentally in student townhouse 105 on the first floor, had potential to spread to an entire row of adjoining student townhouses, but everyone got out safe, and the fire was quickly contained thanks to fast action by residents and well-trained student responders.
Such an outcome was the occasion for deep campus-wide gratitude that a scary close-call did not become a more profound tragedy. Ultimately, Saint Michael's put its best face forward on a long and challenging day with touching displays of bravery and compassion, as countless individuals met the urgent or longer-term needs of 22 students displaced by the fire. Dawn Ellinwood, vice president for student affairs, and Lou DiMasi, director of student life/assistant dean of students, were on the scene along with Director of Public Safety Peter Soons shortly after word of the fire came in to assist with students to assure their well-being, and to help them get in touch with families to let them know they were safe. In short order, all 22 had clothing, food and suitable alternative housing in a comfortable nearby hotel, along with the kind of moral support that is a signature quality of the college.
Eight minutes – the Saint Michael's College Fire and Rescue squad's response time to the fire scene at Townhouse 105 from the moment the first call came in via 911 at 3:28 a.m. – was particularly remarkable, says St. Mike's Assistant Fire Chief Erik Haversang '11, considering that from the time their beepers went off as they slept in campus residences, these emergency-experienced students all drove or ran over to the station across Route 15 from main campus, donned air packs and fire-retardant gear, jumped on the new Engine 8 and old Engine 9 and roared over to the student 100-series Townhouses in the northeast corner of main campus, just a few hundred yards from headquarters.
Since fire spreads so rapidly, every minute counts, said Haversang, a St. Mike's Fire and Rescue four-year alumnus. Having a college-based squad right on campus - and in this case, having Student Fire Captain Mike Bodreau living right near the working fire site - made incalculable difference in the outcome, Haversang is all but certain:
"Most important is that every one of 22 residents from that block of townhouses got out safe, with only water damage to all but the one townhouse that burned," he said. Student Life staff and the Red Cross quickly found suitable housing, clothes and food for everyone. Dispatching for SMC Fire when the call came in was Patrick Mager '08, who also works as a Resident Director for the college's Student Life office and is a graduate education student after majoring in biology. "He did a good job at the switchboard, Johnny-on-the-spot – I was proud of him," said Haversang.
Bodreau, a senior history/secondary education major from Quinebaug, CT, became the initial incident commander by default when, upon hearing the first beeper tone, he came out of his residence in Hodson Hall just yards from the burning townhouse, and saw the flames from every window. "He had his radio, and his initial update to dispatch was 'fire showing' -- so in the minutes until our first truck arrived, he came up with a plan, instructing our new Engine 8 to make a "fire attack,' which is what is sounds like: they go and attack the fire." explained Haversang.
Amy McGann '15, an Information Systems major and second lieutenant from Hanover, MA, was at the wheel of Engine 8, immediately throttling up the engine on arrival to get pressure on the hose for the 1,000 gallons of water the equipment carries. She was one of four female responders on the trucks. "We put 300 gallons a minute out, then the second engine on the scene gives them their 1,000, and then a crew hits the hydrant, which fortunately was right on the corner in this fire," said Haversang. "It's miserable in the super cold weather and you freeze once the water starts, you're solid ice, unless you're inside the burning building where its 1,000 degrees - and then the cold's not affecting you."
Senior Grey Switzer '14, environmental studies major from Shelburne, VT, led the attack into the building, flames roaring, carrying the "first line in," Haversang says, with junior Nate Richard '15, a junior political science major from Cape Neddick, ME, fast and fearlessly on his heels. "Basically, right away we requested Winooski to roll their ladder truck," Haversang said. Colchester and Essex crews soon followed with Winooski arriving in about 10 minutes from the first call they got, and the others shortly after. By the time those town crews arrived, the Saint Michael's first-wave attackers had been forced to back off into a more "defensive mode," when one of the crew put an axe in the stairs of townhouse 105 to test it and the stairs basically collapsed.
"I have to do a big shout-out to the student members who fought the fire and their ability to stop it from spreading to adjacent apartments," said Haversang. "The other townhouses have a lot of water damage but it's still a remarkable accomplishment. They worked exceptionally hard." Two of the three male residents of townhouse 105 were able to escape down the stairs through the door upon hearing smoke alarms sounding, while the third exited his second-floor window and lowered himself from a porch roof, according to later reports. Safety personnel knocked on doors to evacuate the nearby townhouses efficiently.
Once Haversang arrived on the scene from his home in Colchester he instructed one student crew to go next door to Townhouse 104 on the second floor and open up the ceilings, spraying water into the attic to stop it from spreading through a void space that reached clear down to Townhouse 101. "It probably took about half an hour to have the bulk of the fire knocked down," he said. "Basically the second floor of the fire-building structurally collapsed, which is never a good thing." On the scene from near the start was Battalion Chief Pete Soons '82, the college's director of public safety, who was primarily occupied with his public safety role and so left the firefighting primarily to his crew.
While campus fires are rare except for the common burnt popcorn in a dorm room, the assistant chief said, squad members get plenty of useful experience "running rescue" or being a firefighter at Saint Michael's for neighboring towns. "On the average we respond to one real fire a month – some months none but some two or three," says Haversang," noting the recent bitter cold weather seemed to bring more calls. "The students are getting a ton of experience. We train to do what we did today."
Even with those demands, most squad members do well in classes too, he says, with their experience typically becoming a central piece of their time at St. Mike's. "Part of it is the thrill and the rush you get when you're looking at a fire and say, "I'm going to go put that out!" he says. "The responsibility and experience you get as a college student doing this helps prepare you for a job in the real world, whether firefighting or something else."
"And it's a big family, which is cool," Haversang said." "The new Fire and Rescue members come to realize there are a lot of people who actually care about them a lot, in and outside the fire house, and I think that draws a lot of people to the organization. Some folks just try it as something different and end up falling in love with it. We find lots of families take tours and are interested in checking us out.'
For those who fought Monday's fire, it was a long day, but they're used to that. "We generally tell students, 'don't respond if it's within two hours of a class,' but in a case like this that's not going to be a factor," says Haversang. Later Monday afternoon, the crews planned to return to the fire site to be sure no embers were at risk of rekindling.
"When all the cool stuff is done, that's when the work starts," he says. "Picking up our equipment, cleaning everything, checking the hose and air packs, nozzles cleaned, trucks washed." But he's fast to add that "everyone realizes they're students first and firefighters second. Still, on a call like this, they're firefighters first, with an entirely professional attitude till the job is done."