LaCrosse Fire

News Narrator

Flames that destroyed a Brookline apartment building this week. An amazing story of survival is now being told.


9 Fires broke out on campuses across the nation over three weeks in January and February 2012. A fire is in the headlines but then is quickly replaced by other breaking news and we never hear of the true impact of these fires. This documentary tells of this impact, what happens after the headlines fade. It tells the rest of the story.

In January and February 2012, fires broke out on the campuses of the University of Wisconsin La Crosse, Arizona State University, Portland State University and Hampden-Sydney College. All in on campus student housing. They all provide valuable lessons on what can go right, but also what can go wrong.

University of Wisconsin La Crosse

At the University of Wisconsin La Crosse, a fire started in the middle of the night in a basement lounge. The fire caused significant damage to the building’s infrastructure. Smoke spread through the building’s four floors through unprotected openings and pipe chases. The good news is that no one was injured in the fire. However, the building was closed down for an entire semester, forcing the university to find new housing for 271 students.

Joe Gow

If you think this can’t happen on your campus, you’re naive, because it can.

Allison Montcrief

My room was off of the lobby, it was the first room to the left. I was sleeping in bed when the fire alarm went off.

Dan Skiles

We started to advance into the room. The conditions in the room were very hot, very smoky, visibility was down to zero.

Allison Montcrief

Once I got outside and all of the doors were open, the oxygen was let in, the smoke started piling up into the lobby and into the stairways and that is when I realized that something was actually going on.

Betsy Collins

All of the students were very concerned about the fact that there might be someone in the building. At that point we didn’t know for sure everyone was out safe so everyone was very worried about the other people in their community.

Craig Snyder

Having a good evacuation and emergency plan in place comes in very handy if you every have an actual emergency.

Joe Gow

People said, “ok, I’m going to evacuate, and I’m going to relocate, but hey, I’ve got all kinds of…my books, my computer. When can I get back in there to get those things?”

Joe Gow

We are in Drake Hall where we had the recent fire and not many of us get to see what a fire looks like and I thought when I came in and saw this that it was so devastating that it really impresses upon you the seriousness of being safe when you hear a fire alarm.

This is where the investigators believe the fire began in this couch area. And you can see this is completely devastated.

And thank God no one was down here at the time when that happened because I don’t know how they would have got out. This is why it is so important when you hear a fire alarms in our building, you might think, “oh, it is just an alarm or a drill,” but it can be the real thing and it has really changed the way I think about fire safety and we wanted people to see that for themselves because this will get cleaned up and life goes back to normal but it is important for people to see the devastation.

I fully anticipate we will have students from Drake Hall that who will have had academic difficulty and there will be conversations and appeals about probation and things like that and we’ll have to take this into account, you know, what impact this experience had on that student’s experience to do the typical academic performance.

Allison Montcrief

I pushed it out of the way, you know was reorganizing people to help them get their stuff back in, to kind of just cope with how I was feeling and didn’t really want to think about the actual reality of what was happening and then that night I definitely had little bit of a mental breakdown like, oh my gosh, I don’t have a place to live, I am futon hopping, it was really difficult and the week after was definitely hard, I skipped meals, stuff like that, because, you don’t think that something like that, you got out of the building fine, you didn’t get burned, none of your friends died or anything, you don’t think it is going to have that much of an impact on you, but just the fact that you are homeless and your life is completely thrown for a loop.

Gregg Cleveland

Had there been sprinklers in the dormitory, this would have been a non-issue. It would have been what I called more of a routine fire. Probably within say two, three hours maximum, the students would have been back in the dormitory and the only thing that would have been shut down would have been that particular area. There probably would have been little to no damage to the communications system. There would have been little to no disruption in the UW’s mission of providing education to their students.


Drake Hall opened six months later after extensive repairs to the electrical system and telecommunications. Vertical pipe chases which had spread the smoke throughout the building were repaired and sealed. The building had to be cleaned and painted because of the smoke damage on all four floors.

Unfortunately, an automatic fire sprinkler system was not installed in the building during the six month renovation. However, the university does plan to add sprinklers to all of its residence halls over the next few years.

On Campus Segment


There were two fires in residence halls that had automatic fire sprinklers, one at Arizona State University and one at Portland State University in Oregon.

At Arizona State University the fire department found smoke coming from a room on the upper floor of a high-rise residence hall, and just as they opened the door, the sprinkler head activated, controlling the fire that started in a trash can.

At Portland State University, the fire department responded to a 10-story residence hall. A trash chute ran the height of the building and the trash had backed up from the basement to above the second floor. A cigarette was thrown into the chute, setting the trash on fire. Fortunately, an automatic fire sprinkler system put out the blaze.

Both of these sprinkler saves were short stories on the news as opposed to the fire at University of Wisconsin La Crosse. They had very little damage and the students were back in their rooms within hours, demonstrating the role that sprinklers can play in protecting students in residence halls.

At Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, some students are housed in college-owned theme houses which are similar to fraternities. In one such house, students spotted a fire in a couch on the attached porch and thought they had put it out using cups of water. In the middle of the night, the fire broke out again and then spread into the house. All of the students got out, but one student didn’t realize his friend had escaped and went back in to find him, crawling on his hands and knees below the smoke. He was severely burned and the building was totally destroyed.

Andrew Thacker

Basically, I woke up with Matt Maloney, the other guy in here. He ran upstairs and woke all of us up. He had woken up first because his roommate woke him up and they realized there was a glow coming in and they smelled smoke and the fire alarms had actually not gone off and it was our porch outside was completely in flames by the time we were awake. So they tried to put it out but the flames burst in the windows and started coming into the house. It was about the time they ran upstairs to wake us up. By the time we got to the stairs the fire had gotten into the house and the smoke had gotten really thick and we couldn’t even see the one real exit on the back of the house, outside of the porch exit, which was in flames, we really couldn’t see anything so we really didn’t know what we were running into going down.

This is definitely something I’ll never take lightly again, especially considering my family and everything, smoke detectors just beeping, won’t take the battery out.

Actually, be mindful of your surroundings, it’s very simple thing you can do that will go a long way because you never know when tragedy will strike.


A number of fires have started in upholstered furniture on porches and some of these have been fatal fires. The problem is the fire gets a good head start on the porch where there are no smoke detectors or fire sprinklers, before it spreads into the building. Now it is growing, cutting off escape paths, spreading smoke. Preventing these types of fires is vitally important, but knowing what to do when they do break out can save lives.