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Fire At Wayback Sparks Communication Concerns

By Belle Martinelli


Students gathered outside Wayback as firefighters entered the building (photo by Belle Martinelli).

Thursday morning, Wayback residents were awoken by the fire alarm, and shuffled out of the building, some in pajamas and some without a phone, for an assumed short drill. However, the alarm that sounded at 11 a.m. didn’t stop until around 5 p.m. that evening.

Students gathered outside the building as the alarm rang on. UPD arrived on scene, followed by multiple fire trucks from surrounding counties. Students rushed out of the building, some later than others due to the back door being bolted shut.


It became increasingly clear to students that this was no drill, as RA’s from Wayback, Fort Awesome, and Central started to collect the names of residents gathered outside.

Firefighters in full gear swarmed the building as the last of the students filtered out.


Students were unable to re-enter the building and were either forced to attend classes without the necessary materials or skip all together.


At 11:44 a.m., Purchase sent out an alert to all students and staff reading “A fire was reported in a room at the Wayback Residence Hall. The fire has been extinguished and no injuries have been reported.”


Students dispersed as it became apparent they would not be able to re-enter the building. Resident coordinators stood outside as custodial staff entered with cleaning supplies. The next announcement students got would come almost two and a half hours later: an email from Residential and Student Life, telling residents there would be a meeting at 3 p.m. to discuss the fire and provide updates. Students were also told they would receive a separate email if their personal items were believed to have been damaged.


In an email to the Purchase community shortly after the meeting was announced, President Milly Peña wrote, “As we assess damage from smoke and the activation of the water sprinkler in the suite, the cause of the fire is under investigation. At this time, we believe it was unintentional.”


Wayback residents gathered at the Natural Sciences building at 3 p.m. for the informational meeting, led by Patty Bice, dean of student affairs, Mike Kopas, senior director of facilities and capital planning, and Chief Dayton Tucker.


“We won’t have all the answers for you,” Bice told students. “We’re working through that.”


At the meeting, students were provided with information on how the fire started, precautions and cleaning in the building, and actions being taken to move students back in.


“We know that the fire did start in an unoccupied room on the second floor,” Chief Tucker told students. UPD received alerts that two of the smoke detectors went off and “the fire department was on scene pretty quickly” to extinguish the fire.


“In some time as we go through an investigation, we do have the Westchester fire investigation squad looking into it and we’ll have a little bit more information,” said Chief Tucker.


As of Thursday, one officer was in the hospital and being treated for smoke inhalation. According to Chief Tucker, the smoke from the fire caused the building’s sprinkler system to go off in the affected rooms.


“The damage was somewhat contained,” said Kopas. The fire originated on the second floor, the third and fourth floors sustained no damage. “With sprinkler heads, what happens is when a sprinkler goes off in a certain room, it kind of expands and goes down,” Kopas explained.

UPD and police cars swarm as students wait outside (photo by Belle Martinelli).

Smoke detectors in the affected rooms received water damage and were no longer active, causing the alarm to stay ringing. During the meeting, the company in charge of handling the smoke detectors were on their way to the school. No students could reside in the building until each detector was replaced and reset, ensuring the building is legally ready for occupancy. No clear time frame was given to students as to when they could return to their rooms, however alternative housing for the night was briefly discussed.


According to Kopas, when the alarms are down, so are the elevators. Custodial staff carried equipment up and down the stairs in order to clean out the water from the sprinklers.


Students raised concerns about three main issues: where they were to go, attendance in classes and the back door.


The temperature on Thursday was 76 degrees, with high humidity and a glaring sun. As students waited outside the building for answers and hours on end, many were left overheated with slight sunburns.


Attendance in class was also an issue, as many students were not prepared. Most left their laptops, car keys, even phones in the room, anticipating a drill. Some students were still in pajamas or missing articles of clothing. They were told to contact their professors and explain their absence but were not excused at the time.



The biggest concern of all was the back door on the East side of the building. After months of students propping it open from the outside, it was bolted shut. An email was sent to residents the last week of February, stating the door “will be under construction and is no longer in use until further notice.”


However, it seemed most students were unaware of this as they tried to exit through it.


“[A] cop informed me to exit the back door,” said junior Raelina Cordero. “The back door ended up being bolted shut and I was in a panic yelling for someone outside to open the door and nobody was able to help me, being that it started to flood, and it was bolted shut.”


Another student, Max Scarpino, lives on the second floor next to the exit staircase leading to the back door.


“I had to move through all the smoke and the water in order to escape because I could not leave the fire exit that was right next to my door,” he said. “I had to go through the entire dorm.”

Out of service sign on the back door (photo via Max Scarpino).

Scarpino has been in contact with Tom Kelly, sustainability manager, on issues surrounding the door. “[He] also told me that the police and facilities are aware of the door, but when they arrived to assess the fire, not a single police officer or UPD member knew of the bolting.”


Kopas told students “I’m still looking into it, but it was an active repair going on because, like I said, it wasn’t secure from the outside. That’s pretty much all I know about it right now.” The door needs repairing and students were assured parts were ordered to fix it.


“It’s inconvenient but that’s not really the story here, it’s dangerous,” said senior Anthony Vassallo.


After the meeting, students lined up outside of Wayback to be escorted in to grab any necessary supplies. Students not in attendance at the meeting were not notified about this. RAs and RCs took students up one-by-one, or by suite, to their rooms.


However, according to one RA, they were not excused from classes. They were told to skip and email their professors themselves.


“I need my inhaler and I didn’t have access to it for a few hours, so that was very dangerous for my health,” said Kaylie Mancino.


Many students expressed concerns over health conditions as well as personal items being damaged.


“I’ve got medication I need,” said freshmen Jamie Simiele. “There were rumors going around that the sprinklers went off and my hard drive is on my bed.”


Within an hour of grabbing belongings, residents received an email from resident coordinator Kayla Rozanski, informing students the building was cleared and they could now enter.


“Why is it that the only update we got throughout this whole process was that there was a meeting and that you can go back,” said freshmen Nora Baier. “That was the only communication we got.”


Baier has a pet bunny living with them on campus, so they had to take into account how to take care of their pet for the day, as well as alternative housing for the night if need be.


“I had to go so far as to plan a hotel or an Airbnb for the night,” said Baier. “It was a no cancellation thing so if he accepted it then I would’ve been out. I need secure housing for my animal.”


Students' main takeaway from the day was primarily concerns about communication.


“I just feel like the communication was a big issue today,” said junior BingQian Ting. “I really wish they were more comforting. That’s why the campus is so angry right now, because we’re not being heard.”


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