[Photo of Devereux Hall by Tony Lee]
By Mark Belcher, News Editor, @markbelcherjr
ST. BONAVENTURE (Feb. 16) – Following two consecutive weekends of prank fire drills in Devereux Hall, St. Bonaventure University students were unprepared for a real and intentional fire Sunday morning.
At roughly 6:11, unidentified individuals rigged two microwaves to catch fire, triggering Bonaventure emergency procedures to kick in.
“Everything worked just the way it should have,” Ralph Aloia, university fire/life Safety-NYS security instructor, said.
He said smoke detectors sensed smoke within 180 seconds and 90 seconds later, signaled the fire.
Safety and Security Services called fire authorities, and they arrived 14 minutes later. Within two minutes of their arrival, resident assistant staff safely evacuated most students from the dormitory.
“When I woke up, I felt fine because my initial thought was, ‘Great, some drunk person burned popcorn again,’” junior marketing major Charlee Smith said. “When I found out the fire alarm set off because of a real fire, I felt a little startled. I remember my hallway smelt gross, so that made me snap into reality and walk a little faster.”
Smith eventually walked to the designated evacuation area in the Shay Hall lobby, but many students, including her, ignored the initial alarms.
“I woke up to the sound of someone pounding on my door,” Smith said. “When I woke up, I was so fed up with the fact that the fire drill was going off again, that I did not intend on getting up and going outside.”
Eventually, a phone call from her friend woke Smith up, but when she was finally safe, she did not truly feel it.
“I felt scared because I was so used to getting up for fake drills that I assumed the real fire drill was just another fake one set off by some drunk kid trying to cook,” Smith said. “I don’t think that I will feel safe in my building for a while.”
Despite the damage to student confidence, Vito Czyz, director of Safety and Security Services, said a host of groups are working towards swift justice.
“We have potentially 300 plus residents in Devereux Hall who were put in danger,” he said. “We are going to turn the heat up big time. This is going to get solved.”
Czyz said Safety and Security Services, the Cattaraugus County Sheriff’s Department and the New York State Office for Fire Prevention and Control are processing evidence, both physical and circumstantial.
“We are going to pursue this to the fullest,” he said. “The university has had enough of these events, and we are going to put an end to this.”
Perpetrators, which Czyz believes to be a small group of people, would face any applicable charges, including criminal offense, felony offense and expulsion from the university.
“I can’t imagine what was going through the individual’s heads who set this fire up,” Smith said. “I feel as if the campus is not as safe as I thought it had been in the past.”
Junior sociology major Tiffany Nunez said the situation made her want to escape to home for a weekend.
“It’s sad that this is what we have to deal with – people who have nothing better to do than play with fire,” she said. “It also makes me wish this school had more safety features like cameras in the lounges and better protocol when things like this happen.”
Although Czyz said he thought protocol was executed well, he did say campus safety features already planned, like more cameras around campus, will be completed this year.
“There were some good things that came out of this, however,” Czyz said. “The alarm system worked, there was full security, Allegany Fire and full RA cooperation and there was little damage to property.”
Aloia said it is better to look at the positive and find things to improve.
“We are evaluating microwaves on the campus,” he said. “We are looking at new microwaves that shut down if smoke is detected.”
Czyz said the university will never stop working to make the university safer, but he needs student help.
“We want anybody with information to come forward, both first hand or second,” he said. “We will exhaust every lead and every possibility.”
Although the investigation is still under way, Czyz said the university is communicating with authorities daily to wrap up the hunt.
“It’s tough to say, but I hope by the end of the week,” he said. “The sooner the better.”