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50 years after a fire killed 9 at the Cornell Heights Residential Club, no arrests have been made and many questions remain unanswered.

April 11, 2017

50 Years After Cornell Blaze That Killed 9, Questions Linger

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Early in the morning on April 5, 1967, eight students and one professor lost their lives in a flash fire at the Cornell Heights Residential Club.

The fire broke out shortly after 4 a.m. in the two-story building, dubbed the “Res Club” by its 71 residents: 60 freshmen, several female graduate students and three faculty advisers.

The freshmen were members in a new six-year doctorate program at Cornell at the time. Cornell had purchased the two-story cement and red-brick building in 1964 and began using it in 1966 as a residence hall for the program.

Described as “fire resistive” by John E. Burton, vice president for business, in a 1967 memorandum addressed to a Cornell provost, the building’s fire doors were propped open — allowing the fire to spread — and its six exits were not reachable.

Among the fallen were Martha Beck, 18, a sophomore in the six-year Ph.D. program; Meimei Cheng, 22, a graduate nutritional sciences student; Peter Cooch, 19, a sophomore in the six-year Ph.D. program; Carol Lynn Kurtz, 22, a nutrition graduate student; Anne McCormic, 21, a home economics senior; Jeffrey William Smith, 17, a sophomore in the Ph.D. program; Jennie Zu-wei Sun, 21, a pre-med junior in the College of Arts and Sciences; and Johanna Christina Wallden, 25, a graduate fruit-culture student, The Sun reported at the time.

John Alban Finch, 37, an assistant professor of English, was also killed as he ran back into the building to pull students from the blaze.

“We woke to the sound of running feet in our hall,” Margaret Ferguson, a student in the first group of six-year Ph.D. students, told The Sun. “We opened the door, and saw the awful smoke. We decided to use our sheets to climb out of our window. We called down the hall and several other [six-year Ph.D. students] came out through our window.”

One of the first policemen on the scene told reporters no fire was visible from the outside but “people were hanging out of all the windows,” the Nashua Telegraph reported in 1967.

The fire caused vinyl and foam rubber upholstery near the basement lounge to release toxic smoke. It then spread to wood paneling in the basement corridor and to bedrooms and the stairway near the lounge. Firefighters and first responders reported feeling dizzy and weak from the fumes.

Despite having fire doors and water-type fire extinguishers in place in all corridors, the building had no fire escapes on the second floor, no fire alarm and no sprinkler system. Water mains had just been added to the building, and sprinkler installation had been scheduled for that morning, The New York Times reported after running a front-page picture of the burnt building.

“The fire alarm did not seem to work,” Diego Benardete, a student in the program at the time, said in an email. “I tried to set it off before exiting the building, but I couldn’t do it.”

Benardete also remembered other lacking safety features.

“There were no fire drills. No sprinkler. No fire escapes so that people could exit without going through the lobby. I was struck by how unsafe the building was, certainly as compared to what I had been used to. Someone had blundered in preparing that building for student occupancy.”

Several other buildings on-campus were found to not be properly retrofitted at the time, including Sheldon Court, McFadden Hall, Boldt Hall, Baker Tower, Lyon Hall, University Halls, Clara Dickson Hall, Comstock Hall, Risley Hall, Mennen Hall, Cascadilla Hall, Hasbrouck Apartments, Phillips House, and Triphammer Coop, The Sun reported in the week after the fire.

The Sun also found that Cornell had failed to file a 1966 fire inspection report on the Cornell Heights Residential Club, in direct violation of state law.

A 1965 report by former University Inspector R. Haner noted “there shall be at least two means of direct exit to the outside at ground level, remote from each other, leading from each floor of student occupancy.”

On the morning of the fire, only the first floor of the club met this condition. Five students were trapped on the second floor, unable to exit the building.

A senior in the Res Club reported a conversation with the fire inspector a month before the fire, The Sun reported in 1967, in which he allegedly said “there won’t be any fire,” after being asked how students at the end of the halls would be able to escape.

Fifty years later, the exact cause of the fire in the Res Club has never been determined.

Cornell University was ruled negligent in 1972 by the United States Northern District Court of New York in a lawsuit filed by the parents of Jeffrey W. Smith, a victim of the fire.

The University also reevaluated its fire safety measures, with the Board of Trustees allocating $750,000 in June 1967 for an “accelerated life safety program.” The program added fire escapes, enclosed stairwells, sprinklers and fire alarms, The Sun reported.

Within two months, however, two additional fires broke out at residences housing the displaced six-year Ph.D. students — one at the Watermargin Cooperative on May 23, 1967, and another at 211 Eddy St. one week later.

The timing of the fires, some argued, was not coincidental, given that several “Fuds” — students in the six-year program — were staying in those particular buildings at the time.

Without access to counseling or extra security personnel, several students felt personally targeted. One student, Marguerite Waller, told The Sun that some people on Eddy Street stayed up late “on guard duty.”

“[A]ll I know is that he is out there and he wants to kill me,” Marvin L. Marshak wrote in a cryptic letter to The Sun in June 1967.

In August 1967, a Canadian chemist had “found and identified a fluid accelerant present at all three places,” according to The Ithaca Journal.

Ithaca Police Chief Herbert Van Ostrand was allegedly “satisfied that the fires were set deliberately, and has evidence about the accelerant used,” The Journal reported.

The accelerant used could have caused the toxic fumes in the Res Club at the time, the chief said.

Dr. Ralph Low, the Tompkins County coroner at the time, determined that while the fire was of undetermined origin, it was likely “the result of human carelessness or malice.”

“There were at least four ‘persons of interest,’” District Attorney Matthew Van Houten said in a statement released last week on the 50th anniversary of the fire. “We are constrained by the evidence, and there was insufficient evidence to support a criminal prosecution against anyone.”

In response to allegations of a cover-up, Van Houten wrote that he is “confident that the law enforcement agencies involved in the investigation pursued every possible lead and acted with integrity and professionalism.”

More than half a century later, however, a group of over 20 survivors do not believe that the investigation was conducted in a fair and impartial way.

In a confidential memo from Steven Muller, vice president for public affairs, to President James A. Perkins in 1967, Muller wrote that “continued silence by the University is more likely than not to be interpreted as an implicit admission of guilt and negligence.”

“They will equate silence not only with guilt but with the intention to conceal, and they will use such facts as are made public at the inquest to accuse the University of callous indifference toward the safety of its students and the conditions under which they live.”

For Jonathan Katz, an alumnus of the Ph.D. program, the lack of arrest in the Res Club fire case was another example of “Cornell obstruction of justice in a company town whose law enforcement was subject to Cornell pressure.”

Other alumni allege that the University intentionally remained silent to shield itself from any potential responsibility stemming from buildings that did not comply with fire safety standards.

“It’s hard to imagine that the university didn’t do everything in its power to minimize its culpability and, while protecting the future safety of Cornell students, hope that the matter would fade away,” wrote Sam Roberts, a staff writer for The Sun at the time of the fire.

“Obviously the university was concerned about the tragic loss of life. It was also worried about negative publicity and legal liability connected with the cause … as well as drawing more attention to a program that was already controversial because of the insularity and intensity of many of the students.”

The alumni hypothesize that the rigors of the accelerated doctoral program may have caused contention among students, leading one to turn to arson.

In response to alumni who claim a suspect is still at large, Harlin R. McEwen, the principal investigator of the fire for Cayuga Heights Police told The Sun the allegations are “blatantly untrue.”

“Recent allegations … that the Cornell Residential Club fire was an arson and the deaths should be declared murders is not supported by the facts as currently known,” he said in a letter to the editor.

“The facts, as I personally know them,” McEwen said, are that nine people “tragically perished from asphyxia due to toxic smoke inhalation.”

Some alumni say they are simply seeking acknowledgment that the University was more focused on public relations than it was on being transparent.

“I remember that we were told very little,” Waller wrote to The Sun. “I felt the event was not addressed openly or sufficiently. I do not recall that any extra security was provided for any of us. I think that was another indication … that the university was completely focused on covering up rather than confronting what happened.”

Others believe the University, 50 years later, does not properly recognize one of the largest tragedies in Cornell history.

“I think the key thing for me now, in late life, is that no proper memorial on the campus has been made over the last half century,” Neil Blumberg, an alumnus of the program, wrote in an email. “The plaque on the former Res Club is inconspicuous and, in my view, quite sadly disproportionate to the loss of life and extent of the tragedy.”

“Something more substantive, such as the planting of nine trees in a memorial grove in some public place on campus, along with an explanatory plaque and the names of the dead, would have served the victims better than nothing, and been a more fitting tribute to those who died.”