Fires in dorm leave students out in the cold

Ryan Murphy
News Editor

Residents of one VCU dorm have been able to return home after their rooms were flooded following a suspected arson.

Fire alarms sounded in Rhoads Hall and Brandt Hall early Saturday. Residents waited in Monroe Park and then at the Franklin Street Gym until almost 5 a.m. when most of the students were allowed to return to their rooms.

Jessica Crane, who lives on the 12th floor of Rhoads Hall, examines her water-damaged textbook. Her room was flooded by sprinklers after someone deliberately set trashcans on fire in restrooms on the 12th and 18th floors of the dorms. Photo by Audry Dubon

Trash cans in restrooms on the 12th and 18th floors of Rhoads Hall were intentionally set on fire around 1:43 a.m., according to the VCU Alerts webpage. One fire was put out with a hand-held fire extinguisher but the overhead sprinkler system was triggered on the 12th floor and caused considerable property damage, the site says. There were no injuries but there was minor damage to students’ belongings.

VCU spokesperson Sathya Abraham said that all students were allowed to return around 4:50 a.m., with the exception of those who live on the 12th floor. The damage forced those students to find somewhere else to spend the night.

“All residents on that floor chose to relocate on their own accord to other friends’ residencies,” she said, adding that Residential Life and Housing offered to help find lodging for any student unable to provide their own.

Displaced students were ultimately allowed to re-enter their rooms around 2 p.m. on Saturday afternoon. Abraham couldn’t say how many students were evacuated, but noted that between 40 and 50 students live on a floor in Rhoads and that not all of them were there during the evacuation.

Students who were on the floor at the time say that after they evacuated, a group of about 30 residents of the 12th floor was separated and were told that police wanted to take statements. After being sequestered in a separate room in the gym, they were told that a broken sprinkler in the bathroom where the fire was started had flooded the floor and that they would have a short time to go to their rooms and retrieve valuables and whatever else they would need to spend the night elsewhere.

Jessica Crane was one of those residents. The freshman cinema student lives in Room 1206, near the restroom. Crane said as soon as the alarm sounded, she made a beeline for the stairwell and had trouble seeing because of the dense smoke. After being allowed back to her room around 2 p.m., she surveyed the damage and continued cleaning what hadn’t been taken care of by the university’s cleaning crews.

“My room is right next to the bathroom and pretty much all of my floor was completely covered in water. Everything that was on the floor got soaked. My school books are very, very wet. I’m not sure if they’ll dry,” Crane said. She also noted that some areas that weren’t in plain view were still wet, including where some electronics were still plugged into outlets.

Quandra Moore, another resident of Rhoads’ 12th floor, was upset by the incident.

“I was kind of mad that we had to be isolated for so long because the fire happened at 1:30 (a.m.) but we didn’t get to go back to our room until 5:40 (a.m.) so we were just out there for like four hours,” she said. “I didn’t like that they had us out in the cold for an hour before they decided to take us to the gym.”

Both Moore and Crane were able to stay the night with friends on other floors in Rhoads.

Other students took to social media during the evacuation to voice their frustrations. Some uploaded images of crowds of students sitting on the Franklin Street Gym’s basketball courts in pajamas.

Umair Khan is a freshman who lives on the 15th floor of Rhoads. He said that despite the circumstances, the authorities responded well to the situation.

“It’s one of those things that was planned well, was executed well and you could tell that everyone was prepared,” he said. “I’m actually glad that they had a facility to hold us. That was really comforting to know.”

In an unrelated incident, officials confirmed reports of flooding that same night around 12:40 a.m. at Johnson Hall. A backed-up drain caused some standing water in a bathroom, which left the bathroom unavailable but did not impact student rooms.