When lightning struck the Women's Resource Center (WRC) last Thursday, it knocked out the fire detection system in the building that normally would have raised an alarm. Jeff Jaquith, a member of the College's maintenance staff, was the first to report he saw smoke, which he initially thought came from a nearby pine tree.
Maintenance Manager Bill Maguire was first on the scene and called Public Safety to report that flames could be seen inside the third floor window and shooting through the gabled roof. Maguire, a veteran deputy chief at Oakmont Fire Company in nearby Haverford Township, then unlocked the building and ran up its winding steps to check for anyone who might have been inside. He found no one, and no one was injured. On his way out, he closed the door to the third floor behind him, preventing the fire from spreading further. It was approximately 10 a.m.
A few minutes later, a four-member team from the Swarthmore Fire and Protective Association (SFPA) arrived. Maguire credits their "swift performance" and the "efficient way" they attacked the blaze with containing the fire to the third floor. Ultimately, more SFPA members, as well as those from five additional companies, responded.
Maguire accompanied the first team into the building, feeding them the hose line from the second floor. Tom Cochrane, part of the College's construction management team and also a former firefighter with Swarthmore Borough, helped direct three members of the College maintenance crew - Ken McNeal, Steve Talley, and Joe Havens - to take line off of the truck and run it to the fire hydrant outside Hallowell Hall. Additional facilities staff responded as well, while Public Safety Officers Jimmy Ellis and Tony Green secured the area and kept the roads clear. Less than 20 minutes later, the two-alarm fire was under control.
SFPA and the College have a longstanding, collaborative relationship, with many students and community members serving as volunteers over the years. SFPA members who responded to the WRC fire include part-time Public Safety Officers Pat O'Rourke and Dan Clement, as well as David Sacker '97, who lives in Swarthmore and happened to be working from home that morning.
Once the fire was out, it was clear the third floor, home to the WRC's library and modest but prized collection of feminist literature, bore the brunt of the fire damage. The second and first floors also suffered extensive water and smoke damage.
Still, it could have been much worse. "The biggest thing is that the fire was vented and already coming through the roof," Maguire says. "If not, the heat intensity inside would have been so much hotter." The Fire Marshal of Swarthmore Borough later determined that the lightning struck the building's gutter, wrapped around to a steel-framed window, jumped to a conduit inside the third floor, exited a plug, and ignited a couch.
In addition, SFPA used their own tarps to protect the building's contents on the lower floors, "making sure to save our materials while they still worked to put it out," Maguire adds. "Sometimes that's not possible, but they worked with us. They did a great job."
Recovery got underway immediately. All of the unburnt contents of the building were moved off-site the next day. A drying system for the building is now in place, as is a temporary roof. The full extent of the damage is still being determined.
Maguire has responded to a lot of calls in his 20-plus years at the College, but this is by far the most significant. Yet, "I knew when I first saw it we could get it out," he says. "And we will rebuild."
Indeed, in a message to faculty, staff, and students on the day of the fire, Dean Liz Braun assured that "we are fully committed to restoring the building so it can continue to serve students and the community."