A fire early last Sunday in 356 Washington St., also known as Lotus House, forced the Buddhism-themed program house’s 18 residents to find other accommodations for three nights. Alerted to the fire at around 4 a.m. on Sunday, students weren’t allowed to return to the house until Wednesday morning, after most of them had left for Thanksgiving Break.
The fire was a result of a problem with the house’s heater. According to House Manager Aaron Stryker ’19, the heater had broken earlier in the day on Saturday, and the University sent someone to fix the problem later in the day. Overnight, the heater, which is located in the basement, malfunctioned and started to burn the house’s insulation, sending chemical-laden smoke throughout the house. When Public Safety and the Middletown Fire Department arrived, residents were told to wait in the garage building adjacent to the house.
“The fire department arrived within five minutes,” Stryker told the Argus. “They went in for about 15 minutes, then came out and said we wouldn’t be allowed back in the house for a while as it was full of carbon monoxide.”
According to a Wesleying article about the incident by Gabby King ’21, Public Safety allowed students to return to the house in groups in order to grab belongings they would need for the next few nights. Officers told residents that they may not be able to return to the house until after Thanksgiving Break, and one firefighter asked students if they were experiencing the lightheadedness and nausea characteristic of carbon monoxide poisoning.
“A lot of us had to go back in to pack our bags to leave and Psafe had to let us in each time we wanted to go back in the house,” Stryker wrote. “But I think it was sensible—the whole inside of the house smelled like burning plastic…for about three days and there wasn’t any heat so it wouldn’t have made sense to stay there.”
Associate Director of the Office of Residential Life Maureen Isleib arrived at 4:50 a.m. and encouraged Lotus House residents to call friends and sleep in their rooms. Since most students were not answering their phones that early in the morning, many residents were assigned rooms in Hewitt. Sophie Talcove-Berko ’21 was one of the lucky ones whose friend answered her call. King and three of her hallmates, however, were given rooms in Hewitt after attempting to call friends for over an hour.
Public Safety dropped King and her housemates off at the dorm at 7 a.m. on Sunday. Although she and her friends were happy to be set up with Hewitt singles, they arrived to realize they could not enter the building because their WesIDs did not give them access. She and her friends ended up using their guest access to West College and sleeping on a friend’s floor.
“You see, a Wesleyan education sculpts its students into problem solvers, the kind of students who advocate for themselves, who use their WestCo guest access to sleep on their friend’s rug after the key Reslife gives them doesn’t work after being kept up for hours in the middle of the night after being exposed to literal deadly gases when their campus home catches fire,” King wrote.
In a message to The Argus, King wrote that students were not allowed to reenter the house in the days before break without a Public Safety Officer present. Working with the officers’ schedules, students could only enter from 1 to 2 p.m. on Sunday and 6 to 8 p.m. on Monday. King commented that the fire made the few days before break much more hectic.
“I didn’t have any midterms that the fire interrupted, but everything about campus life felt very unnecessarily hectic and stressful because of the house fire,” she wrote. “All the chaos of upending my lived-in schedule was heightened by the fact that I also had to leave campus on Tuesday, and couldn’t go back into my room to figure out what had to stay and what had to go, or even just to relax and be in my own space.”
King is also frustrated by how sleeping arrangements following the fire were handled. She believes that the University should either be able to find all students housing in University dorms or put students up in a hotel until they can do so. She wrote that, even though she and her hallmates got rooms in Hewitt, other students were not so lucky and were told to sleep on couches in other program houses around campus.
“My roommate is considering fully leaving the house and asking for different residential accommodations because of how concerning this event has been,” King wrote. “I would have thought that paying $30,000 a year for room and board could have at least granted us a brief-but-deserved hotel stay. Instead we were brushed aside and expected to just let this happen to us, which is why I wrote the Wesleying article in the first place.”
Students around campus opened their doors to Lotus House residents for the nights following the fire. Johnny Hayes ’21 lives in LoRise and got a call from a friend who lives in Lotus House on Sunday night asking if a few housemates could stay in his apartment. He waited up for a few hours before going to bed and found out in the morning that the students had gotten singles in Hewitt.
“I waited up for two hours but no one ever showed, so I sent my friend a message telling her I was going to sleep,” he told The Argus. “I got a message from one of the two people the next day letting me know that they got singles in Hewitt but they appreciated that I stayed up for them. I’m glad everyone is okay at least.”
Henry Walker-West ’21, another Lotus House resident, came away from the Sunday morning fire with a positive impression of both Public Safety and the Middletown Fire Department. He thought that the whole experience was fun until he realized that he could not stay in the house for three days.
Echoing King’s frustrations, resident Laura Pérez Maquedano ’20 told The Argus that she wished that the University would have more emergency housing and that students were put in a hotel until they could find other accommodations.
While most residents were upset by the fire and how it disrupted their last few days before break, resident Adin Kramer ’20 spoke about how he was surprised by how calmly people reacted in the moment. He was happy to see many residents respond graciously in a stressful situation.
“I thought people reacted super calmly and warmly,” Kramer told The Argus. “Some of us were meditating, which I think is funny…and also sort of significant in terms of how the Buddhist theme house has the ability to respond to something that typically people might respond very negatively to.”
A representative from the Office of Residential Life could not be reached at the time of publication.
William Halliday can be reached at email@example.com.