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Coles Tower fire alarm stumps administration, leaves students stranded

December 3, 2021

At 11:26 p.m. on November 13, smoke in Coles Tower triggered a fire alarm, leading to an evacuation of the building and a call to the Brunswick Fire Department (BFD).

“I was walking toward Thorne … with some friends, and we could smell smoke and we thought it was a campfire, but it was raining [outside] so we were confused,” Hayden Weatherall ’22 said. “We could sense smoke coming up from the basement stairway, so we investigated and we didn’t see anything down there. We didn’t see any flames or anything.”

Students were let back into the building beginning at 12:56 a.m. the next day, leaving them stranded outside their residence hall for an hour and a half.

“I was kind of pissed about the inconvenience of having to leave in the middle of the night,” Coles Tower resident Harry Cooper ’22 said.

Students’ confusion was compounded by the frustration caused by the evacuation effort itself, which saw members of Bowdoin security shepherding students—many of whom were sleeping—from Coles Tower into Thorne Hall.

“[Bowdoin Security] was just corralling everybody into Supers, and I think people in Supers were trying to get out of there,” Cooper said. “[Students] would try to sneak out and then [the side door] alarm would go off for five minutes … people were generally confused about what was going on.”

Although residents were let back into the building early in the morning on November 14, their confusion surrounding the cause of the smoke lingered.

“I don’t know where [the smoke] came from. I’d still be interested to know that,” Cooper said.

Though the initial investigation of the scene by College staff was extensive, the administration remains equally confused about what caused the smoke.

“The cause of the smoke has not been determined and at this point will probably not be found,” Jeff Tuttle, associate vice president for facilities and capital projects, wrote in an email to the Orient. “[Bowdoin] facilities crews have checked all of the air handling equipment, including all the air intakes, and everything is as it should be.”

While the cause of the smoke remains a mystery, Tuttle theorized that it may have come from outside the building and not from the building itself. The smoke was initially believed to be the result of rubber belt slippage in the HVAC machine located in the building, but evidence gathered at the scene contradicts this.

“We are speculating that the source somehow came from the outside, as in addition to smoke in the ductwork, there was also smoke in the mechanical room which IS NOT served by the HVAC unit and only gets air directly from the outside,” Tuttle wrote. “The smell/smoke that is usually attributed to malfunctioning HVAC equipment is one of burning rubber … and that smell is putrid and quite distinctive. Comments from Security personnel indicated that the smoke/smell was that of burning leaves and that was echoed by Facilities persons on the scene.”

This speculation by staff members is in line with BFD findings at the scene.

“The [Coles Tower] report indicates a burning condition similar to that of a Class A type fire, which would be normal combustible wood products, which typically, you would not get with HVAC failure,” Deputy Chief of the Brunswick Fire Department (BFD) Jeffrey Emerson said. “So I would not rule out the potential that it could have been a fire that was an unnoticed exterior fire that came in through air handlers.”

The case will remain active with the BFD, but neither the College nor the BFD have plans to actively pursue an ongoing investigation as to the cause of the smoke. Instead, the College plans to upgrade and continue its regular fire security system tests.

“There will be no other investigation by BFD, as they could not find any source or evidence of fire and they did an extensive search into every nook and cranny in the basement of Coles Tower,” Tuttle wrote. “In order to provide the best protection to students and other members of the campus community, we are constantly upgrading our fire detection systems to ensure that we meet, and more often than not, exceed the current code and take advantage of the latest technology.”

Juliana Vandermark contributed to this report.

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