Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
On the morning of June 13th, lightning came through a window on the third floor of the Women’s Resource Center and set a couch ablaze before spreading rapidly throughout the building.
Despite the firefighters’ success in controlling and extinguishing the fire, the building was significantly harmed by the blaze. Among the losses are the majority of the third floor’s library.
“I was shocked,” said Hannah Armbruster, one of two WRC interns. Armbruster, along with many other students, has used the building for homework, cooking and socializing.
According to Facilities Manager Bill McGuire, the thunder could be heard from Sproul Alumni House. It took about 20 minutes for the flames to become visible through the roof after the initial clap of thunder.
“It was pretty quick. That’ll happen because this is an open structure. There’s nothing really to contain [the fire]. It just ran up to the top,” said McGuire, who also serves as the deputy chief of a local fire company.
Fortunately, he spotted the blaze early.
“We had time,” he said. “I actually came in, the third floor door was open, made sure nobody was in there, went out, closed the door, and called the fire company. “
Pat O’Rouke, the Battalion Chief of Swarthmore Fire and Protective Association and a part-time Public Safety officer, was a member of the first fire company on the scene at the WRC. After surveying the scene, O’Rouke requested an additional four fire companies to supplement the four originally sent.
“There was a heavy volume of fire initially—smoke to the floor and high heat, he said.
The crews broke the third floor windows and advanced a water supply line up the narrow stairs to site of the flames as they fought the blaze.
The eight companies, which consisted of about 75 fire fighters, had the blaze controlled in less than five minutes.
“It was a textbook operation” O’Rouke said. “The crew did a great job.”
A follow-up email on the day of the incident from Dean of Students Liz Braun gave students additional information about the fire. She confirmed that there had been no injuries and informed students that while most damages occurred on the third floor where the blaze began, “the lower floors also suffered extensive water and smoke damage.”
In the immediate aftermath of the fire, the Administration expressed their support for repairing the 1925 WRC building.
“We are fully committed to restoring the building so it can continue to serve students and the community,” Braun said in her email.
As the current construction around the WRC can attest, the College is keeping to its word. McGuire, who is managing the restoration process, expects the rebuilding process to cost around $450,000.
The restoration, which includes completely reconstructing the third floor and the roof, will be covered by both the college and the insurance company. The college has a $50,000 deductible, but expects that the rest of the cost to be covered by the insurance company.
“The first steps were to clean out and dry out [the building] and mitigate the smell” McGuire said. “Then we actually started getting some pricing on the roof structure.”
In keeping with their goal of recreating the WRC as it existed prior to the fire, the college hired an architect to draw detailed plans of the building and brought in a wood pathologist to identify the type of wood used for the original roof beams (Answer: Douglas fir). They also salvaged some slate shingles from the fire-destroyed roof and bought matching shingles.
At this point, “it’s about getting the mess finished, getting the shop-blasting done” McGuire said. “[Then we’re] getting the building cleaned from the top to the bottom and painted.”
The college also hopes to re-carpet and re-tile the building, and replace the furniture and bookshelves destroyed by the flame.
McGuire estimates that the building will be reopened in about six weeks. While this construction occurs, those involved in the WRC will be temporarily without a home.
“Resoundingly I heard, ‘I really care about the space, I’m really concerned. I really value what you do,’” Armbruster said. “The Kitao Gallery came forward and offered the space and said ‘the WRC was like a home to me. I really want a space for the events to continue.’ ”
Armbruster and fellow WRC intern Leah Jean-Louis ’14 are also looking into using the Lang Center or the Intercultural Center as a temporary space for their events.
Regardless of the building that they use during the following weeks, Armbuster and her peers look forward to “a big reopening party” for the WRC in the coming months.