Fire Ruled Accidental In Which Southern Adventist Student Died

Blaze Started On A Third-Floor Couch In Thatcher Hall

Tuesday, April 26, 2005
Kelly Weimer
Kelly Weimer

A fire in which Southern Adventist University student Kelly Weimer of Woodridge, Ill., died early Tuesday morning has been ruled accidental and started on a couch in the third-floor lobby.

There was no fire in any student rooms.

The victim had a roommate who got out of the building safely.

Roof repairing of the burned building is now beginning, and students have been allowed to get their belongings in Thatcher Hall. However, the dorm is currently closed for resident use.

Over 400 students have been relocated, and all of the university's students may go to their homes after final exams today.

At 5:47 p.m., Bob Pollard, assistant director from the State Fire Marshall’s Office, announced that the fire scene investigation was complete and that the fire had been ruled accidental. Mr. Pollard spoke to a small group of administrators, policeman, and campus safety officials who gathered to take a walk-through of the west wing on the third floor of Thatcher Hall.



“We’ve ruled out electrical, and we’ve ruled out arson,” said Mr. Pollard. “We can’t give the fire department enough praise,” he continued. “Their quick response and quick actions from the time the fire was reported saved a lot of lives.”

“Every system the university had worked perfectly and functioned 100 percent,” Mr. Pollard said. “The smoke alarms did what they were supposed to do. The alarms went off when there was only a small amount of smoke in the building, which gave the residents time to evacuate.”

“We can’t explain why one resident went toward the fire instead of away from it while everyone was exiting the building. This is a great tragedy that there is no explanation for,” he said.

“A sprinkler system would not have avoided the loss of life in this situation,” he said. “Sprinklers activate after smoke alarms and only when the temperature has reached well over 200 degrees.”

Mr. Pollard said the prior planning and training the university had done was evident. He also praised the university’s Campus Safety officials for their actions in response to the fire, university officials said.

The victim, a junior English major, was 20. Her body was found in a hallway outside her room.

Officials said Tuesday afternoon that the section of Thatcher Hall where the fire broke out had alarms and smoke detectors, but did not have sprinklers.

Duane Pitts, chief of the Tri-Community Volunteer Fire Department, said, “Sprinkler systems are for building protection, not life safety. If the third floor of Thatcher Hall had been sprinklered, it may or may not have made a difference. The primary life safety systems for the saving of lives are smoke detection and alarm systems. Thatcher Hall is equipped with both smoke detectors and alarm systems.”

President Gordon Bietz said, "We have one fire drill each semester in each dorm, and they are scheduled during the night hours. These drills are monitored by the Fire Marshall. Thatcher Hall was built in 1968 and is compliant with state fire codes for a building that age. There are smoke detectors in each dorm room. Campus safety officials report that the fire alarm did sound, alerting the women to quickly evacuate the building. The alarm system was last tested in December, 2004. The structural integrity of the walls in the west wing worked to limit the spread of the fire. The basement level of the building was sprinklered, as well as the Thatcher South section. Our long-range plan to install fire suppression systems in all our campus buildings."

The fire broke out shortly before 4 a.m. at Thatcher Hall, a 3-story brick dorm for females.

Tri-Community Volunteer Fire Department was the first on the scene, and a call for mutual aid went out. Eleven other fire companies eventually arrived at the college in Collegedale.

The first fire units saw flames and smoke rising from the rear of the dorm.

Lt. Jerry McDonald of Hamilton County EMS said two females were spotted with their heads out a third floor window gasping for air. Tri-Community firefighters got a ladder up to them and they were rescued. They were taken by EMS to Erlanger Medical Center for treatment of smoke inhalation. They were treated and released.

They were identified as Jen Bigham, freshman broadcast journalism and psychology major from Biglerville, Pa., and Cassandra Snyder, freshman general studies student from Lansdowne, Pa.

Ms. Weimer was on the third floor.

Lt. McDonald said there was not visible damage from the front of Thatcher Hall, but at the rear there was apparent fire damage and a hole in the roof.

School officials said the fire started in the lobby near a kitchenette of the third floor.

The cause of the blaze was being investigated.

The dorm has 300 rooms that are double occupancy. Officials said some of the students had already gone home.

Exams had been set to start at 8 a.m. They were delayed until 10 a.m. The 8 a.m. tests were rescheduled for 6 p.m.

Ruthie Gray, school spokesperson, said the exams were ongoing because counselors advised that in such a tragedy it was best to continue a sense of normalcy. Students unable to take the exams will be allowed to do so later.

University president Gordon Bietz said, "Our thoughts and prayers are with the victim’s family and students during this time of crisis. This is affecting us very deeply here at the university. Please pray for the students and the staff as we struggle to deal with this tragedy.”

The victim's family was notified soon after the tragedy.

A special service was to be held on campus at 8 p.m.

Counseling was being provided to students in need of it.

Amy Maxwell of Hamilton County EMS recounted that at 3:53 a.m., students at Thatcher Dorm "awoke to fire and smoke."

She said a 9-1-1 caller reported heavy smoke and fire coming from the third floor at Thatcher Dormitory For Women.

Ms. Maxwell said Tri-Community Volunteer Fire Department responded and arrived on the scene reporting heavy fire and smoke coming through the roof. At that time, Tri-Community VFD requested a third alarm fire response for mutual aid. Mutual Aid companies were as follows: Hamilton County EMS, Hamilton County Emergency Services, Catoosa County Fire Department, Cleveland Fire Department, Bradley County Fire Department, East Ridge Fire Department, Highway 58 Volunteer Fire Department, Tennessee State Fire Marshall’s Office, Rossville Fire Department, Ft. Oglethorpe Fire Department, Chattanooga-Hamilton County Rescue, Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department and Collegedale Police Department. There were 14 Fire Engines, 6 Ladder Trucks and 4 Rescue Trucks and over 100 firefighters responded to the fire, which enabled them to contain the fire within 30 minutes.

Chief DeWayne Pitts, Tri-Community VFD, said, “The firefighters did a great job getting the fire under control. We used a ladder truck to rescue two students from the third floor.”

Chief Pitts mentioned the dormitory had firewalls, which helped contained the fire to a small area and reduced significant damage to the dormitory. Chief Pitts extended his appreciation to all the responding companies for their quick response and assistance in extinguishing the 3-alarm fire.

Ms. Maxwell said the cause of the fire will be under investigation by the Tennessee State Fire Marshall’s Office. Damages are undetermined and Southern Adventist University will release the estimated damage to Thatcher Dormitory.

Steve Pawluk, senior vice president for academic administration spoke at a news conference at 11:30 a.m.

He said, "Since early this morning, our campus community has been thrown into a state of shock. About 3:30 this morning a fire broke out on the third floor of Thatcher Hall, our women’s residence hall. It is with deep sorrow that we announce the death of one female student. She’s identified as Kelly Weimer (Wee’mer), a junior English major from Woodridge, Ill. Our hearts go out to her family, friends and loved ones both here at the university and back home in Illinois.

"Two other students were taken to Erlanger Medical Center where they were treated and released. They were identified as Jen Bigham, a freshman from Biglerville, Penn. and Cassandra Snyder, also a freshman from Landsdowne, Penn.

"The fire was contained to a kitchenette/laundry, a public restroom and a lobby of the West Wing’s third floor. The fire did not enter any student dorm room.

"At this point, we don’t know the cause of the fire, and we refer those questions to fire investigators.

"All 574 residents of Thatcher Hall were evacuated and fire safety officials are determining when those students will be allowed to return to the building.

"Meanwhile, university counselors are meeting with students in the university’s student center. Other universities and social service agencies and local pastors are volunteering their help in comforting students who’ve suffered emotionally.

"It’s not surprising that on a campus of strong religious beliefs, some of the university’s professors have joined students in impromptu prayer circles on the university lawn.

"A 'Service of Remembrance' for the university community has been scheduled for 8 p.m. tonight in the Collegedale Seventh-day Church.

"As of now, the dorm’s south wing has reopened. The East wing has also re-opened but only to allow students to re-enter their rooms by escort to retrieve items.

"The university’s Social Work Department is coordinating donations for those students who lost personal belongings. A donation drop off center has been set up in Iles Physical Education Center.

"We’ve set up a large bulletin board in Thatcher South to allow students
and family members to leave messages with contact information.

"The university’s exam schedule has changed. Exams scheduled for 8 a.m have been rescheduled for 6 p.m. today. Exams scheduled for 10 a.m. and later are meeting at their regular time. Professors are working with students individually who may not be take their exams because today’s traumatic events.

"The University would like to thank all the firefighters and emergency workers who responded including those in the Tri-Community Volunteer Fire Department, the Collegedale Police Department, and many surrounding fire departments who responded to the mutual aid call.

"We also like to thank everyone who is praying for the university and all the volunteers who are assisting with counseling and relocation.

"Thatcher Hall was built in 1968 and is compliant with state fire codes for a building of that age. University safety officials say the fire wall in the West Wing worked to limit the spread of the fire. The fire alarm did sound and helped women evacuate the building in a timely fashion. A fire department chief said the fire was contained within 30 minutes.

"All this morning we have answered calls from concerned parents and family members anxious to know about their son or daughter’s well-being. Be assured this is our NUMBER ONE priority as we continue to assess the damage and make contingency plans.

"Anyone, including parents, students and faculty who want additional information are advised to check the university’s website for further updates."

President Bietz had a press conference at 4 p.m. He said:

"This has been the most difficult day of my presidency here at Southern Adventist University. I received the call about the residence hall fire shortly after 4 a.m., and later learned that one of our Thatcher Hall residents, Kelly Weimer, perished on the third floor of the building while trying to evacuate.

"I just returned from picking up Kelly’s parents, her grandfather, and an aunt from the airport. They flew into Chattanooga from Illinois at 11:30 a.m. Kelly was a junior English major from Woodridge, Ill. I can’t describe how devastating this has been for this family. They have visited with the medical examiner and are beginning to make funeral arrangements. My heart goes out to Kelly’s family and friends at this time.

"We are having a Service of Remembrance tonight at 8 p.m. at our campus church, the Collegedale Church of Seventh-day Adventists. Our campus will join together to pray and remember together. Live video streaming of tonight’s remembrance service will be available from our website at www.southern.edu.

"574 residents of Thatcher Hall were evacuated early this morning. Two other students were taken to Erlanger Medical Center, treated, and released.

"The State Fire Marshall has not allowed any university officials onto the third floor of Thatcher Hall, so we have not been able to witness the extent of the damage. They are doing a thorough investigation. We do know that the fire was contained in a kitchenette/laundry area, a public restroom, and a lobby of the west wing’s third floor. The fire did not enter any student dorm rooms, although several doors experienced charring. We have reports of extensive water damage in the halls below the third floor.

"At this point, the residents of Thatcher South, the back part of the residence hall, will be allowed to spend the night in their rooms. The other 421 residents in the main part of the dormitory are being relocated to other accommodations, including vacant rooms on one wing of Talge Hall and faculty and staff and community homes. Some of the residents have been able to visit their rooms and retrieve some of their belongings.

"I want to praise our students and the courage they have exhibited. They have assembled in prayer groups with our faculty and counselors all over campus. This has been very difficult and traumatic on many of our students. Thank you, students, for supporting each other during this time so well.

"The university’s Social Work Department has coordinated donations of supplies to the students. They have supplied personal care kits(towels, shampoo, etc.) for the women who couldn’t get back into their rooms, and have helped with organizing the gym for shower needs, etc.

"I’d like to thank all the counseling volunteers coming in from other universities and colleges and agencies across town. Counseling has been available throughout the day for our students, and we will have counseling available at the Remembrance Service tonight at the church.

"Our number one priority is to take care of the students’ needs as we respond to this tragedy.

"Thanks go to the members of the many fire departments that responded this morning, as well as the police department."

Firefighters outside Thatcher Hall
Firefighters outside Thatcher Hall
- Photo2 by Amy Maxwell

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