Residence hall catches fire on students’ first day back

It is the kind of scenario students practiced for months, but never expected to occur.

Upon hearing the alarms, “I immediately thought, ‘which floor burnt the popcorn?’” said R.J. Magee, a freshman theater major who lives in the Johnson and Hardwick residence hall building at Broad and Norris streets.

At approximately 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday, alarms sounded in J&H , and they were both evacuated after a fire broke out inside the building.

Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs Michael Scales was at the scene, and said concern was sparked by “a distinct smoky aroma between the buildings in the expansion-joint.” He said the source was not apparent.

Engine 27 Capt. Tim Todd received the call about smoke in the building around 3 p.m. Todd, along with a team of four chief officers, three fire engines, three ladders and a medical unit arrived at the scene.

“The fire was minimal,” he said. “Putting it out was simple, but finding it was the problem.”

Officials advised students displaced by the fire to wait in nearby Peabody Hall to stay warm, but the residents dispersed throughout campus. Saxbys was packed to the point that some students were forced to wait outside, while nearly 70 students packed into Peabody’s television lounge. Others waited at the McDonald’s on Broad Street for permission to re-enter.

Officials blocked the surrounding area from Susquehanna Avenue to Norris Street and west to 15th Street. Noelle Stratton, a freshman secondary education-history major, was parked in the turn-around in front of J&H to move into her residence hall when the fire erupted.

“I came down from my room after leaving a suitcase and $300 of newly purchased books for the semester in my room,” she said, “only for a cop to tell me that I have to move my car because of the fire.”

Freshman theater major Joe Wozniak was in class when the incident occurred.

“It was really cold out and I had just walked across campus and couldn’t enter my building,” he said. “I wish I got a heads up like a text message or something.”

At 4:58 p.m., officials said it was safe for residents to enter the building.

Michael Beachem and Kenneth Jones, the resident directors of Johnson and Hardwick halls, respectively, sent mass e-mails to residents later in the evening explaining the event.

“The fire was contained with minimal damage. However, some administrative offices were affected, including the mail room, although no mail was destroyed,” they wrote.

Students often smoke in a small recessed doorway commonly called “the pocket” between the towers to avoid the cold wind. Investigators have yet to determine a cause, but it is possible that discarded cigarette butts sparked the blaze.

The e-mail also requested, “We are asking kindly that all students and guests suspend smoking on or near the three benches outside the J&H breezeway until further notice.”

Matthew Petrillo can be reached at

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