Arson in Howe-Rounds
The case of the fire extinguisher in the microwave
Published: Friday, February 29, 2008
Updated: Thursday, January 13, 2011 08:01
Students milled about Case Center, wearing coats and pajama bottoms. Some curled up on the couches in the '01 Lounge and the Saratoga Room, using their outerwear as blankets. Some slept directly on the floor. The inhabitants of Howe-Rounds, courtesy of an unknown arsonist, had been turned into refugees.
On Friday, Feb. 22, a fire extinguisher was used to start a fire on the first floor of Skidmore's Howe-Rounds dorm. The extinguisher was placed inside a microwave and the microwave was turned on. The fire that resulted was small, but the copious amounts of smoke set off an alarm at 2:55 a.m. that was answered by Campus Safety and then the Saratoga Springs Fire Department.
Some believe that sparking metal caused the fire. However, Lawrence Britt, Associate Director of Campus Safety, explained otherwise. "On one side of the fire extinguisher is a rubber hose," he said. "The hose ignited."
Two Campus Safety officers, Tammy Ost and Seneca Smith, put out the fire before the fire department arrived. "They went for the fire extinguisher near the kitchen - but it was in the microwave," Britt said. "They had to run down the hall and get another one."
Britt has spoken with facilities and the Saratoga Springs Fire Department in an effort to determine if there was potential for an explosion, which could have resulted in shrapnel and a much larger fire.
"It could have been very dangerous," Britt said. "Res Life will be holding meetings to try to convey that to the students. This is more than just a stupid prank," he said. "I have a bad feeling the person responsible for this is escalating."
No ties have been made between previous, more minor fires and the one set in Howe-Rounds. However, there is indeed a trend of escalation. This year, fire damage was inflicted on two bulletin boards in Jonsson Tower - first on the ninth floor on Dec. 8, 2007, and then on the eleventh floor on Jan. 23. Neither incident was as potentially destructive as the microwave fire in Howe.
"I've been here for eight years and I have never seen a fire extinguisher in a microwave," Britt said. "It's the way they did it." The arsonist was apparently not content with jeopardizing lives and property; he or she had to do it in an attention-grabbing manner. "I think the person doing this needs some help," Britt said.
The nature of the act suggests that it could not have been an accident or the product of a drunken lapse in judgment. "I don't know what the person's intent was," Britt said. "But this was intentional. The person had to take the fire extinguisher, walk down the hall with it, put it in the microwave and set the timer."
The Director of Residential Life, Donald Hastings, agreed. "This was a conscious act," he said. "We have not had something that was this intentional."
Referring to the prompt alarm triggered by the smoke, Hastings said, "It's lucky the system is so sensitive." He applauded the behavior of students and staff as well as the systems in place. "There was no loss of property, or injury," Hastings said. "Nobody had to move."
However, the magnitude of the act demands a serious response. "We want to follow through," Hastings said. "Nothing ever happens in a vacuum on a college campus. We will follow up on any bit of information we have."
The investigation has been turned over to the Saratoga Springs Police Department, which has taken fingerprints and claimed the scorched microwave and fire extinguisher.
Hastings and Britt both exhort students to report any information they might have pertaining to the arson.
"There needs to be a sense of trust as a community between community members - whether you're a roommate, suitemate or good friends, we all need to look out for each other," Hastings said. "That bond is sacred.
"I would encourage students to think about their connection to their community and that extension of trust. That's what Skidmore stands for and we come to a residential college to experience that community. So let's reaffirm it," he said.
Whether the arsonist is a peer of theirs or not, Howe-Rounds students do not condone the malicious act.
"I don't think someone from the dorm would try to burn their own dorm down," said Samuel Glickstein '10, a resident of Howe-Rounds, adding, "It's scary because I know people who live right next to the microwave."
Nick Pierce '10, another resident, was also somewhat shaken. "People punching in closets doesn't threaten me that much - that's just destructive," he said. "It's not physical harm. But there is physical harm that could come from putting a fire extinguisher in a microwave."
Megan Durham, Resident Hall Director of Howe-Rounds, described an uneasy mood in the dorm. "My staff is concerned, my residents are concerned," she said. According to Durham, the most frequent question asked is, "Do we know who did it?"
However, she maintained a sense of confidence. "It really doesn't scare me, just because I know that we have people on the campus that are here to help," she said. "Campus Safety did a great job that night in putting out the fire and working with the residents."
Carly Goldstein '10, another Howe-Rounds resident, also approved of Campus Safety's conduct. "If they weren't handling it as seriously, I'd probably be angry," she said.
Skidmore students and staff agree that the incident is unprecedented on campus. Although the details of the act indicate originality on the part of the perpetrator, the arsonist has in no way fulfilled Skidmore's ideal of creative thought. The act was destructive, and met with widespread disapproval.
"If it was a prank, I'd like to think that my classmates are smarter than that," Goldstein said. "And if it was a purposeful thing, then it makes me sad to hear that my fellow classmates would want to cause harm to their classmates."