A leaking pipe caused an electrical fire in the basement of the Cornell Arms apartments on Jan. 16, forcing residents to stay in hotel rooms, with friends or in their cars for up to two nights.
Several students woke up to a power outage in the building and a burning smell in the halls. They were instructed to pack a bag and evacuate shortly after with no idea of when they would be able to return.
“I was in the bathroom brushing my teeth or something, and the power just went off. And I was like, ‘Oh, that's just Cornell,’ you know, we don't really worry about it,” Morgan White, a spring 2020 graduate said. “And then we were sitting there for like, maybe 30 minutes. It was still off, and I started to feel like I could smell like a rubbery, plastic burning smell.”
According to the Columbia Fire Department, a water pipe leaked onto the electrical equipment in the basement, causing a fire and shutting down the power in the building. When the department arrived, the fire alarms were not operational, potentially due to electrical issues from the leak, and the basement fire extinguishers were out of date.
With the power out and no heat, residents could not stay in the building and had to evacuate.
As students made their way up and down several flights of stairs to gather belongings and help other residents, the exit signs and stairwell lights were completely out.
“The emergency lights that are supposed to keep these stairwells safe during that time, started off in the morning as pretty dim, but by the evening, when everybody was actually evacuating, they were pretty much dead,” fourth-year geography student Ethan Magnuson said. “And so, people were having to navigate down 18-plus floors of stairs in complete darkness, using cell phone lights or flashlights.”
Cornell Arms management provided students who waited in the lobby with a hotel room; however, according to Magnuson, some tenants were sleeping in their cars.
The Daily Gamecock reached out to Cornell Arms property manager Crystal Wrenn on Jan. 17 and 24 for comment and is awaiting comment.
Tenants were instructed to speak with the manager prior to leaving the apartment, but some students were concerned about the spread of COVID-19 when a crowd began to form.
“We all just had to wait in the lobby until the manager would talk to us. We weren't supposed to go without talking to her first, but she was on the phone, there were firefighters and everybody everywhere,” fourth-year international business and accounting student Leah Roberts said. “So that was a little bit concerning, considering we're in the middle of a pandemic.”
The management team at Cornell Arms did not communicate with any of the tenants about the fire or evacuation, according to White. With the lack of information, the tenants began adding each other to a GroupMe to make sure everyone knew what was going on. As of Jan. 22, the GroupMe had 55 members.
“We took a group chat that used to be just a couple people that we knew," Magnuson said. "We've started adding as many people as we can — tenants from all up and down the apartment to try to get everybody connected and inform them of things that Cornell Arms is not informing them of, such as where to go for specific resources and how long we're going to be in the hotels."
Residents were allowed to re-enter the building on the evening of Jan. 17 after the electrical system and boilers to supply heat were fixed, though many residents returned Jan. 18. The fire department will follow up to ensure Cornell Arms stays up to code, according to Michael DeSumma, the department's public information officer.
This is not the first incident that has occurred at Cornell Arms, Fire Marshal George Adams said. In 2015, the fire department responded to a fire in the building. When they attempted to use the standpipe system as a response to put out the fire, it burst.
Current residents are upset with how Cornell Arms management handled the situation. According to White, the property manager told residents she would not be sending out an email or calling any tenants to inform them of the situation. Residents were instructed to call an emergency number themselves to find out when they would be able to move back into their apartments.
As a response, several tenants have put together a list of things they want Cornell Arms to address.
“We're going to try to put pressure together on the management to fix these problems and some of the other major problems at Cornell,” Magnuson said.
The list includes repaying rent for the days that residents were unable to use their apartments, place fire extinguishers in every unit, ensure the fire system works and repair water damage. Magnuson said they might consider a class action lawsuit if residents feel it is necessary.