October 18, 2014

Alumni Seek Answers About 1967 Fire That Killed Nine Cornellians

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It was arson, they argue.

A group of alumni consisting of former six-year-Ph.D. students — participants of an accelerated program at Cornell in the 1960s — and curious Cornellians claim that a fire at the Cornell Heights Residential Club in April 1967 that killed eight students and one professor was started by a student arsonist.

Official accounts of the blaze say that the cause of the fire is unknown, although some speculation over what caused the fire followed immediately after the death of the nine individuals; The New York Times reported on May 31, 1967, that both the district attorney and the Ithaca fire chief at the time thought arson was a possibility.

Yet despite suspicions of arson, no one was charged for the April 5, 1967 fire.

Within the next two months, two additional fires would break out at residences containing the six-year-Ph.D. students, known at the time as “Fuds.” A fire broke out at the Watermargin Cooperative on May 23 and another at the 211 Eddy St. on May 30 or 31. Both of hese locations housed “Fuds.”

Following the fires, Cornell would reevaluate its fire safety measures, with the Board of Trustees allocating $750,000 in June 1967 for an “accelerated life safety program,” The Sun reported a year after the “Res Club” fire.

Looking for Answers

More than 40 years later, a group of over 20 survivors — who believe they have found some of the answers to one of the biggest life-taking tragedies at the University — are now asking Cornell to investigate the incident, according to documents sent to The Sun.

In a series of documents and letters — signed by H. William Fogle, Jr. ’70 — sent to The Sun, the Tompkins County District Attorney and the Phoenix Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Fogle argues that based on discussions with survivors of the fire along with other research, the group of alumni has determined the identity of the alleged arsonist and says that the three fires in April and May 1967 were connected.

In addition, he argues that Cornell was purposefully silent during the investigation.

“The extraordinary silence that the Cornell University administration imposed on a cascade of disasters beginning with the six-year Ph.D. program’s deficient admission process, the spring 1967 arson attacks, the botched criminal investigations and the program’s shutdown directed by the Ford Foundation in 1969,” were among the claims made by Fogle, who is the alumni historian of Cornell’s chapter of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity. Fogle, however, was not a resident at the Res Club.

Administrators, however, were aware of the consequences of being silent; in a letter to President James Perkins filed in Cornell’s Rare and Manuscript Collections, Steven Muller Ph.D. ’58, vice president for public affairs from 1966 to 1971, warned Perkins about silence from the University.

“Continued silence by the University is more likely than not to be interpreted as an implicit admission of guilt and negligence,” wrote Muller in the letter dated April 17, 1967. “There will be no shortage of students and others who will make it their business to pursue this matter with vengeance as long as it seems they can draw more blood.”

Following the fires, some students continuing to live with the Fuds and the Fuds themselves said they were stuck with fear over rumors of a potential arsonist.

“All I know is that he is out there and that he wants to kill me. I don’t know his name and he doesn’t know me,” Marvin L. Marshak ’67 wrote in a June 8, 1967 Sun column.

In addition, media coverage of the fires and the investigation in local newspapers, including The Sun, fizzled during the following summer due to the “flood of extraordinary news,” including the continuation over the Vietnam War, race riots across the United states and the explosion on the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin that killed 134 in July 1967, according to Fogle.