Five Years later: A Look at Bridger Fire

Posted 4/2/09

But the sense of calm he felt that afternoon changed suddenly to one of foreboding when a student ran by, saying Bridger Hall was on fire.

Johnston and instructors Gary Sturmer and Dave Erickson ran to Bridger Hall, on the southeast side of the …

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Five Years later: A Look at Bridger Fire


{gallery}03_31_09/bridgerfire{/gallery} Powell Volunteer Fire Department firefighters (left to right), Gary Mefford, Lloyd Thiel, Mike Alexander and Jim Johnson observe water arching on Northwest College's Bridger Hall five years ago yesterday (Monday). Tribune file photo Toby BonnerFire burns in memoryBy ILENE OLSONWhen Northwest College instructor Jeremy Johnston smelled smoke as he and two other faculty members enjoyed the spring weather outside the Frisby Building on March 30, 2004, he felt no sense of alarm — at least not at first. “Being springtime in Powell, smelling smoke is not that big of a deal,” he said, referring to the large number of controlled burns that take place as farmers burn weeds and stubble from their fields each spring.

But the sense of calm he felt that afternoon changed suddenly to one of foreboding when a student ran by, saying Bridger Hall was on fire.

Johnston and instructors Gary Sturmer and Dave Erickson ran to Bridger Hall, on the southeast side of the same block, where they found flames already coming out of a window on the second floor in the front part of building.

“Boy, the flames were just shooting out of that window, just like a blow torch,” Johnston said.

Johnston said few students were in the building when the fire started at about 3:30 p.m., as most had been attracted outside by the warm spring weather.

“We were trying to get everybody together so we could account for everybody,” he said.

Meanwhile, Logan Craig had been in a shower on the second floor when the fire broke out. He found his way out of the building via a balcony, wrapped only in a towel and minus his badly-needed glasses.

Fellow student Keith Kinkade shimmied up a drain pipe and helped him down to the ground. Kinkade then did a quick search to make sure no one else was in the building.

Three students were taken to Powell Valley Hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation, but none were seriously injured in the fire.The last Bridger Hall resident wasn't accounted for until 9:30 p.m., when he called from his family's farm, where he had been helping his dad with farming chores, said Dee Havig, residence and campus life director.

“I wasn't too worried about the building,” Johnston said. “But I'll never forget when that first fire truck pulled up, and (volunteer firefighter and NWC instructor) Scott Horton got off the truck.

“I still remember the look on his face as he got out of the truck, and I knew we were in trouble.”

Uniting to help

To start with, there were only a few firefighters able to respond immediately, as others were fighting controlled burns that had gone out of control, Johnston said.

“They were short-handed, and I helped pull out the hoses from the truck,” Havig said. “It was unbelievable how quick the fire department got here,” despite the other fire calls.

As other trucks arrived, along with fire departments from neighboring communities, the effort to locate Bridger Hall residents continued.

Lindy Minick, the hall's residential director, “was kind of the hero of this whole thing,” Johnston said. “You could tell she was just barely able to (function), on the edge of just breaking down. She had a whole list of all the students' names, and we were trying to get everybody together...”

Havig, who had seen smoke from the fire from the DeWitt Student Center, said his first reaction was to gather all the residence hall directors and get a head count.

Johnston said the next concern was evacuating Colter Hall and the Frisby Building, both neighboring Bridger Hall.

“We went through knocking on doors,” he said. “I was amazed coming into the Frisby Building, about an hour after the fire started that smoke had really poured into this building.”

Meanwhile, NWC instructor Floyd Young was preparing to house students from the dorm in Trapper Gym in the Johnson Fitness building.

Havig said, “From that point on, I think every employee and almost every student that was on the campus jumped in (to help). People even put their backpacks down, saying, ‘What can I do to help?'

“The campus, everything just shut down. Everybody was out helping. It's a pretty warm feeling when you see that.”

Aramark, the company that provides meals on campus, also came to the rescue with food and water for the firefighters.

Efforts on campus soon were joined by the Big Horn Basin community as a whole, Havig said.

Donations of food, drinks, beds, linens, clothing and hygiene supplies poured in from members of the community and from local and area stores.

The fire burned well into the night, and by the time it was out, the entire building was a loss. Most items inside, including students' possessions, were damaged by fire, smoke or the water poured into the building to extinguish the fire, Havig said.

Within a few days, the relief effort had spread to Billings, and even to other college campuses around the country.

Cleaning up

Once the fire was out, and the fire marshal had done his job, Johnston was among the few employees who were allowed to go into the burned-out building to retrieve as many of the students' belonging as possible. They wore protective clothing and were aided by a forklift that helped them get into second-story rooms to lower belongings to the ground.

“It was an emotional roller coaster,” Johnston said of his work to recover students' belongings.

“You had the young lady who they found her engagement ring. I'm still amazed that they found anything left of it.”

The ring's owner, Sarah Hayman of Newcastle, recently had become engaged. She had left her ring in her room when she went to her ceramics class,

She described where she'd left it to John Bell, grounds and custodial services supervisor, who then waded through a knee-deep pool of soggy ash to retrieve the ring.

Hayman gave Bell a grateful hug.

“Here's this college girl giving John a hug, and he's so shy, he was just embarrassed,” said Kim Mills, vice president for administrative services.

Another pleasant surprise happened earlier for Christine Prevost, who thought she had lost Kiko, her gecko lizard companion of five years. The gecko had been trapped in his aquarium in her room, which was near the center of the fire.

But about midnight on the day of the fire, two firemen, Doug Leichner and Sam Rodriguez, entered Prevost's room looking for hot spots, and Leichner saw the aquarium. He looked in, spotted Kiko, and assumed he was dead.

“Then he looked up at me, and I said, ‘Wow, he's alive!'” Leichner said.

That discovery led to a joyous reunion for Prevost and Kiko.

However, more often than not, the news about belongings wasn't good.

“It was a very, very somber time as you walked around and talked to students and families,” Havig said.

Moving on

Perhaps the most fortuitous coincidence was that former NWC President Miles LaRowe, who was serving his first year at the college, and Mills already had begun planning to remodel the Lewis and Clark residence halls, which had been mothballed by the previous administration due to disrepair and low student enrollment.

“We had decided to go back and remodel them and get them ready for the next year,” Mills said.

After the fire, that project was put on the front burner, and rooms were made available to students within a few weeks.

“If we hadn't had those rooms available, it would have been devastating to our enrollment,” he said.

But, as it was, students were willing to double up in their rooms until the remodeled rooms were ready.

Havig credited many students' decision to remain at the college despite being displaced by the fire to Minick's previous efforts to create a strong community among Bridger Hall residents.

Everyone who revisited their memories of the fire during interviews last week voiced gratitude for the same things: That the fire proved to be the impetus for community involvement and a united effort to help, and that it didn't happen at night instead of the afternoon.

“To this day, I just dread thinking what would have happened at 3 in the morning instead of the afternoon,” Johnston said. “You assume these institutional buildings are pretty sturdy. I was just amazed at what that fire did to this brick building with steel beams. It just looked like someone had just heated this metal and made it pliable to the point where it had pushed it out. It was that hot.”

Mills said he believes the fire was “100 percent of the driving cause” of the 2005 Wyoming Legislature's decision to pay more than $12 million to install sprinkler systems in college and university dormitories statewide.

That effort concluded at Northwest College last fall when sprinkler systems were installed in Trapper Village West apartments.

Mills said it's interesting that the things he remembers most about the fire are the positive things that happened as a result.

“You remember the good things, and you move on,” Mills said.

A new residence hall

College officials acted quickly, and a new residence hall, Simpson Hall, was under construction on the north side of the campus by the fall of 2005.

Another wing is currently being added to Simpson Hall to accommodate additional students.

While the loss of Bridger Hall took a big bite out of student housing, once Simpson Hall's new wing opens in the fall of 2009, Northwest on-campus housing will be up to the occupancy capacity it was before the loss of Bridger, said Mark Kitchen, vice president of college relations.

Firefighters reflect


Five years ago, Northwest College's Bridger Hall was gutted by fire.

Veteran Powell firefighters recall the day vividly.

The fire started at around 3:30 p.m. on March 30, 2004, and burned well into the night.

Some of the department was in the Willwood area fighting a grass fire that also ignited a house, so mustering the entire department and equipment to the college was delayed, said Calvin Sanders, who was Powell Volunteer Fire Department chief at the time.

Fireman Sam Rodriguez said fire was venting out the second-story window, where it originated, when he arrived.

“Scott Horton and I went into Bridger Hall as one of the initial attack teams, but things went from bad to worse and we were forced to retreat,” said Rodriguez.

During the initial attack, firefighters donned air packs and dragged hoses and ladders to the second floor, where huge puffs of orange belched like dragon flames and smoke churned like thunder heads of black soot from windows.

Firefighters broke out windows and discharged thousands of gallons of water on the dorm's center and through windows so firefighters could see inside and verify that no students were left inside.

The safety of 101 Bridger students weighed heavy on Sanders' mind that day.

“There was a period of time we were missing three people (students),” Sanders said, “but they were accounted for.”

The brick structure acted like an industrial-strength kiln, containing the heat from the fire. Inside, steel I-beams melted and sagged, Sanders said.

The fire infiltrated the ceiling and spread, said current Powell Fire Chief Joey Darrah, who has been a firefighter for 14 years.

“The smoke was really bad, so we were crawling around in there,” Darrah said.

Fire departments from Lovell, Clark, Frannie and Cody came to the aid of the Powell firefighters.

The Cody department brought its snorkel truck, with an aerial ladder with a hose nozzle mounted atop to attack the flames from the roof.

Even with all that help, firefighters' efforts that day were mostly in vain; all they could do was contain the blaze.

The fire won.

“We were just never able to get the upper hand on it,” Sanders said.

The fire burned into the night. Crews were relieved at 2 a.m., but Sanders and Assistant Fire Chief Jess Kary monitored the fire until 2 p.m. the next day. Sanders said he was beat by the time he got home.

“I don't think I've been that tired in my life when I got home the next day and went to bed,” Sanders said.

“It smoldered for a couple, three days,” said retired fireman Mike Alexander, who was a firemen for 13 years and also a chief.

If the dorm had contained a interior sprinkler system, firefighters could have held the fire to the room where it began, Sanders said.

In the fire's aftermath, a structural engineer was called to ascertain if the building was safe for fire investigators to enter, Sanders said.

The fire marshal believed a power strip under a bed was the culprit, Darrah said.

At the time, Mark Kitchen, then dean of college relations and development, told the Powell Tribune, that, to his knowledge, the Bridger Hall fire was the biggest fire in the history of the college.

Less than a year later, the Wyoming Legislature passed a bill mandating sprinkler systems in all college housing in the state, Kitchen said.

Bridger Hall was lost. But, there was no loss of life and no serious injuries, which was Sanders' No. 1 concern.

Though it may have been heartbreaking to see the dorm transformed to a burned-out hulk, there was a ray of sunshine.

“If it had been 3:30 in the morning, we would have had the potential for a real tragedy,” said Mark Kitchen, now vice president of college relations.

It is easy to describe the fire as devastating, but from the ashes, the town and college mobilized with arms laden with kindness.

Before the fire was even extinguished, Powell citizens were on the move.

“I can remember people bringing us firefighters ice cold water from their houses,” Rodriguez said. “Businesses brought over cases of bottled water and free food.”

In the aftermath, pickups arrived with beds and mattresses. Students, staff and professionals provided counseling, local stores and restaurants donated toiletries and food, churches offered support, lost glasses and school supplies were replaced and tons of clothes poured in from students, the community and churches.

Bridger and Colter hall students received $20 each — money raised locally. Bridger students also received $70 in chamber bucks.

“The response of the community to the college was unbelievable,” Sanders said.

Rodriguez was not surprised at the community's response.

“Powell has always come together when needed,” Rodriguez said.