Alarm malfunctions in Art Building fire

by Nathan Whalen

While bringing dinner to University art student Kate Vogel at the Art Building on Saturday night, Brian Mattson smelled smoke and went to pull a fire alarm. Nothing happened.
“I pulled the alarm, and nothing. I pulled it again, and the handle broke off,” said Mattson, who is not a University student.
Students spread word of a locker fire in the building’s basement that started by spontaneously combusting oily rags and linseed oil. Everyone was evacuated.
The University is investigating the alarm failure. Fire inspectors and officials from Facilities Management went through the building Monday to determine the status of the fire systems, said Jennifer Schulz, spokeswoman for Facilities Management.
The cause of the failure should be known today.
The art department has been in the former warehouse building on the West Bank since the 1960s. The building, which was built in the 1920s, had become dilapidated and will be condemned and demolished if the art department moves out.
University officials have plans to build a new art building, although its funding has been in question since Gov. Jesse Ventura dropped it from his capital budget recommendations in January. University faculty members and students have lobbied the Legislature to help fund the $44 million project because of safety concerns, such as Saturday’s fire-alarm failure.
There are sirens in the building, but they are concentrated on the main floor, not spread throughout the building.
The fire started around 9 p.m. Saturday night in a closed locker. Melissa Frankman, an art senior, first saw the fire and, with several friends, tried to put it out by aiming the fire extinguishers at the locker vents.
After seeing their efforts were not working, another student cut the locker’s lock with a bolt cutter while Frankman donned a respirator she uses for her sculpture projects.
Frankman grabbed a chemical fire extinguisher after seeing the burning pile of oily rags and started spraying, but soon felt the effects of the smoke.
“We were all feeling nauseated and lightheaded, and we decided to get the hell out of the building,” Frankman said.
Frankman and two other students who helped put out the fire spent several hours in a hospital emergency room breathing oxygen after the incident, she said.
Facilities Management was notified of the fire by University Police. Normally, Facilities Management would have been notified of an Art Building fire when its automatic sprinklers activated. In this incident, they did not turn on, although the fire might not have been large enough to activate them, Schulz said.

Nathan Whalen covers construction and welcomes comments at nwhale[email protected]. He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3236.