If Riverknoll’s walls could talk, they would tell great stories. Some would tell of wild parties, of spaghetti dinners, of hastily finished class projects. Some have been broken by fists. Most have watched four decades of young people live out their lives. And one particular wall would tell of the time when it was covered by black smoke, scorched by flame, doused with water, and had it’s asbestos core revealed.
The fire at Riverknoll apartment 99, which started early on March 27, resulted in the evacuation of 40 students. It permanently displaced the occupants of the apartment, Lorena Pajaro, a fourth year Hospitality and Service Management major; and Daivy Parra, a fourth year Business Management major.
It also drew attention to the housing complex destined for the chopping block, someday to be replaced by bigger and better things. A lot has changed since Riverknoll opened in 1971: centralized heat gained ground over individual wall-mounted units; standards for fire alarms in student housing improved; and asbestos gained recognition as a major health risk, its use discontinued in modern construction. Today, a close examination of the fire and its aftermath suggests that in terms of safety, the complex may be aging poorly.
In a March 2010 interview, Howard Ward, assistant vice president of Student Auxiliary Services (the administrative unit that contains Housing Operations), said that Riverknoll was originally a temporary solution composed of “upscale modular trailers.” “The intention was to only have it up maybe, I guess, 10 years, or not even that long,” he told REPORTER. The buildings have undergone improvements that have allowed them to last 40 years.
Twelve Riverknoll buildings were demolished to make room for Global Village, with the rest to follow someday, but demolitions were postponed last March. Mary Niedermaier, director of Housing Operations, says no date has been set to finish the job. Riverknoll isn’t going anywhere for the foreseeable future.
Heating and Cooling Unit Faulted
In a one-page report, the Monroe County fire inspector blamed the fire on an electrical problem in the wall-mounted heating and cooling unit. That would usually be the final word, but Kurt Ingerick, associate director of Housing Operations, said the exact cause was still being investigated by New York State, which has authority over fire safety on college campuses.
The offending unit, a General Electric (GE) Zoneline, was relatively new. Housing replaced the old unit with a new one in September 2010. According to Ingerick, the swap was part of a planned program of replacement, not the response to a specific problem; but Pajaro says there was one: “I called them for a replacement because the old unit wasn’t working properly.” Over the summer, the unit had trouble cooling the apartment, she said, and it had developed a “funky smell.”
Two days before the fire, Pajaro smelled something different. According to the fire inspector who interviewed her the day of the fire, it was smoke. Asked about it later, she said that it hadn’t smelled like fire, but was rather a “strange little odor,” like someone in another apartment cooking. In any case, she couldn’t pinpoint it, and her roommate, Parra, didn’t think anything of it.
In a typical year, fixed-position electric heaters start 2,600 fires, which kill 20 people and cause $64 million in damage, according to a Consumer Product Safety Commission report. In a separate report, however, investigation of a small number of cases showed that the deadliest fires were caused by units where the heat wasn’t driven outward by a fan, as it is in the GE Zoneline. Fan-blown units, like the Zoneline, are less likely to catch nearby combustible materials on fire, making fires caused by them less dangerous. Instead, when fan-blown units cause fires, it’s often due to internal malfunction.
GE Zonelines are widespread at RIT. They are installed in Riverknoll one-bedroom apartments and throughout Racquet Club. Similar units crank away in rooms at the RIT Inn and Conference Center. If there are other incidents with units, Ingerick hasn’t heard of them; but Housing has nonetheless stepped up maintenance checks. Once a year, a worker lifted the cover of the unit, cleaned the filters, and made sure connections were secure and without corrosion. In a decision made after the fire, that ritual will now be performed quarterly.
Riverknoll is the only apartment complex on campus without a smoke detection system that alerts Public Safety. The smoke detectors in all but three of Riverknoll’s buildings only alert occupants of the immediate unit. (The other three buildings — 11, 29 and 32 — do alert Public Safety and other occupants.) When a fire occurs, the smoke detector in those buildings will not sound a general alarm, which means it may not wake residents sleeping in other rooms or units.
In case after case reported to Facilities Management Services, students from different apartments reported an unidentified beeping sound, at which point a maintenance worker replaced the smoke alarm battery. David Armanini, director of Environmental Health and Safety, said in a written response that the battery was only a backup to the electrical system and that they were regularly checked.
The smoke detector in apartment 99 did sound, said Pajaro, but she was instead woken up by Parra, her roommate. She only heard the alarm after moving toward the living room, the source of the fire, and seeing and smelling smoke. The general alarm for the building, Armanini says, was also tripped.
Riverknoll, like several older complexes on campus, has no sprinkler system.
Riverknoll meets the New York State Fire Code, but only because it’s been grandfathered in. If it was built or renovated this way today, would it still meet the code? “No, it would not,” says Armanini. “The fire codes are updated regularly and buildings are not expected to be retrofitted to the new standards.”
What Riverknoll does have is asbestos. Shortly after the fire, workers erected a tent-like structure outside the apartment, plastered with signs that read “danger; asbestos; cancer and lung disease hazard.”
“Small quantities of asbestos are in the drywall spackle and a layer of plaster in the ceiling (which has been painted over),” said Armanini.
“Asbestos does not pose a hazard unless it is disturbed, which will allow the asbestos fibers to become airborne,” he continued. “Therefore, asbestos is safe to remain intact in building materials. Whenever a renovation or demolition occurs, which will disturb asbestos containing building material, then the material must be abated.”
In the fire and subsequent restoration, the asbestos was disturbed and had to be cleaned up.
Pajaro says that most of the contents of her apartment were thrown away because the items might have asbestos fibers on them. “Almost everything was pretty much discarded,” she said. She knew about the asbestos in Riverknoll, because there were similar signs when the 12 buildings were being demolished.
As for the rest of the complex, Armanini says RIT tested the air inside and outside the apartment and found it to be clear of hazards.
So is Riverknoll safe? “Absolutely,” said Niedermaier. “We wouldn’t put students in any housing that we didn’t feel was safe,” added Ingerick.
As for Pajaro: “This whole process has been a big headache,” she said. “I can’t wait for May to be over, so I can just graduate and move on.”