As a past RA at UTM, I agree that fire drills suck with an intensity matched by few other activities in life. However, as a student who stood outside and watched Ellington burn, I can appreciate the reason they exist.
When my roommate woke me up to tell me the building was on fire, I told him “It’s way too late for a drill.”
About a second later, I smelled the smoke and actually saw the reflection of the flames on the wall. Two minutes later, I was outside.
As I stood in the cold snow on the southwest corner of Ellington with my back to McCord, I stood in amazement and watched huge fingers of fire lash out at the night sky. Thick black smoke poured out the roof and windows. Then, I saw and heard something I will never forget and I imagine the other twenty or thirty people standing near me will never forget either.
A terrible, spine chilling moan rolled out of on the third story windows. There wasn’t any distinct calls for help, but simply a long moan with a few sporadic, indecipherable, terrified exclamations.
Along with it was a “thump thump thump” of someone pounding on the reinforced glass. My heart stood still and the crowd I was near all suddenly went silent. We looked up together.
What I felt in the next few seconds is almost impossible to describe. I have only felt a greater sense of pity mixed with fear once; Sept. 11, 2001.
We all looked up in silence and I clearly remember hearing nothing else, but the moaning and the “thump thump thump.” I nearly began to cry because with each “thump”, I could actually see a fist hitting against the glass. Several of the students in the group near me gasped, several others began to cry and I think we all started pointing in unison to the same window and the same clouded motion of the hand striking the glass.
I am not certain how many times the glass chimed. The moan lasted only twenty or thirty seconds. Both slowly faded off. First, no more ejaculations of terror, then the intensity of the moan itself began to fade and then “thump.. .thump….” Silence.
A couple of guys tried to run in the end doors, but were stopped by the firefighters.
A female student quickly pointed out the window where the sounds had come from and the same firefighters busied themselves with communications over the radio.
I don’t remember anything after that except sitting in the cafeteria talking to people in their pajamas and bathrobes for the next few hours. I learned the next day that a foreign student on the third floor had died of smoke inhalation.
Later, we learned his body was found at the foot of his bed, next to the window. A local news station and maybe even the Pacer had mentioned that experts considered the idea that he had been confused and lost the way in his room trying to find the door.
Finally, it was accepted that the fire was directly across the hall and the heat at his door was probably to intense to survive escape and the window was really the only place to go.
Now the big question is whether or not a fire drill would have prevented this death? The answer is probably not.
The events that took place including the fire going unreported for some length of time and the inability of the fire department to get it’s trucks into proper positioning due to illegally parked cars (both of which are whole other issues), did not bode well for this poor soul.
But this all goes to show us that life is fragile and can be lost in a split second regardless of how indestructible we feel.
I sat many days as a student and looked out on the grass and cars which seemed so comforting and peaceful and accessible.
I made many negative comments about the fire drills and the inconvenience.
After that day, I stopped because I realized people were working trying to protect my safety and that even with that, sometimes lives will be lost.
Who am I to hinder the process? If that poor soul who perished were given the chance to return and participate in a fire drill, I bet he would take the second chance.
Keith Ellis is a UTM alum. He attended from fall 1993 until spring 1998.