Smith Hall fire destroys lab, causes students to relocate for final exams

University police are investigating arson as a possible cause of the lab fires.

Stephanie Kudrle

Police are investigating a May 14 fire in Smith Hall that destroyed one lab and forced several classes to relocate their final exams to other buildings.

No one was hurt in the fire, which started at approximately 4:30 a.m.

Wayne Gladfelter, chairman of the chemistry department, said investigators are looking into the possibility that the fire was intentionally set.

Deputy Police Chief for the University Police Department Steve Johnson said the fire investigation has not concluded and he cannot comment on whether police are looking at arson as a possible cause.

He said the police department is waiting for the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to process evidence from the scene, which could take two to three weeks.

Finals that were supposed to take place inside the building were moved to nearby locations, and no finals were lost in the fire, Gladfelter said.

He said the fire destroyed one organic chemistry research lab – approximately 500 square feet – but he could not yet determine the cost of the damage.

Equipment and instruments used inside the lab usually cost approximately $60,000 to $80,000, Gladfelter said.

“We don’t know how much will be rebuilt,” he said. “We might have to take the room back to the walls and almost all of the equipment will have to be replaced.”

The chemistry department has started cleaning the area, which might take a while due to hazardous materials in the lab, Gladfelter said.

This was not the first fire in Smith Hall, he said, although it was the most destructive one in approximately 50 years.

The lab was used to research the synthesis of natural products – like those found in plants and sea creatures – for pharmaceutical purposes, Gladfelter said.

Andy Aspaas, the teaching assistant whose lab was destroyed, said he was glad no one was hurt in the blaze.

His advising professor, Thomas Hoye, said it is typical for organic chemists to use solvents that are flammable.

He said he does not know if those materials started the fire.

Hoye said the lab was destroyed, but he was able to salvage some research notes and samples.

Experiments and research samples lost in the fire will have to be remade, Hoye said.

“In terms of research progress, it is a setback and it’s disappointing,” he said. “But that doesn’t diminish skills and knowledge that these students have gained.”

The students who used the destroyed lab will be relocated, he said. Although Hoye said he did not have to reschedule finals, he was impressed as the University response team worked to move others.

“Within an hour or so, the information about the fire was out and they were rescheduling,” he said.

Lori-Anne Williams, University services communications director, said about 2,000 students had their Friday and Saturday finals moved from Smith Hall.

Many of the relocated finals took place across the street in Fraser Hall or in nearby buildings, said Steve Fitzgerald, Office of Classroom Management director.

He said his staff started working at 6:30 a.m. Friday to get all the finals reassigned by the time that day’s 8 a.m. finals were to start.

Notices of classroom changes were posted at Smith Hall, on the chemistry Web site and on the University’s One Stop Web site, he said. Students also received e-mail notices and could call a hotline for information.

“We were trying to minimize the impact on students,” Fitzgerald said. “You hate to have this kind of thing come up.”

Brittany Johansen, a microbiology junior, said she arrived for her 8 a.m. Friday final to find the building blocked off with yellow tape.

She said her professor was initially afraid he wouldn’t be able to administer the test because copies of it were inside the chemistry building.

David Heppner, a first-year chemistry student, said he found out through e-mail that his Saturday final would be moved. He said the classroom change wasn’t a problem for him.

“It wasn’t too stressful because it was so close (to Smith),” he said.

– Amy Horst contributed to this article