April 11, 2007

This Week in History

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On April 5, 1967, tragedy struck the Cornell community in the early hours of the morning as flames and smoke traveled through a dormitory building called the Cornell Heights Residential Club. Of the 71 persons housed in the building, the tragedy left nine dead and six persons injured. Eight of the nine were students — six females, and two males. The male victims were freshmen, students in the Six-year Ph.D. program. The women were seniors and graduate students. The last of the nine was Prof. John Finch, English. The casualties were attributed to smoke. The Sun reported the fire as, “the greatest fire tragedy in Ithaca history.” Over 100 firemen battled the blaze.
On April 20th, the inquest investigating the cause of the fire declared it, “of undetermined origin … probably the result of human carelessness or malice.” The building itself had no sprinkler system, fire escapes or fire alarm. Both the origin of the fire and its cause remain a mystery. According to the Sun, many suspect the deadly fire was the result of arson.
The National Fire Protection Association criticized the University for the building’s deficiencies and the disaster prompted protest across the Cornell community. A State Senate committee was formed to investigate fire-safety provisions at colleges across the state. As a result of the tragedy, the fire-protection policies of Ithaca and Tompkins County and Cornell underwent massive reform, by means of many changes that are still in place today.
University President James A. Perkins said at the memorial service held to honor the members of the Cornell community who died in this tragedy, “The soul-wrenching experience the University has undergone … we will live in its shadows for weeks and months to come.”