On April 5, 1967, a fire erupted in the Cornell Heights Residential Club, killing nine Cornellians. Fifty-two years after the horrific incident, the University dedicated a memorial to the victims at a ceremony outside of Sage Chapel on Thursday.
“For too long, all of you have felt unheard and your memories unacknowledged,” Cornell President Martha Pollack said in a speech at the event. “No one can take away the pain of what you experienced. But what we can do is hear your stories and become accustomed, become the custodians of your memories with this memorial, which will remain here in the heart of campus for as long as the University stands.”
A plaque now stands outside of Sage Chapel, engraved with the names of the nine victims, which reads: “Their families, friends, classmates, colleagues, and the entire Cornell community promise to never forget them.”
The fire broke out at around 4 a.m. in the basement of the Cornell Heights Residential Club — now the Ecology House — which was colloquially known as the “Res Club” among students. The residential hall housed 71 residents, which included 60 freshmen and several female graduate students and faculty advisers. Most residents were part of the University’s pilot six-year Ph.D. program, which offered gifted students the opportunity to earn a doctorate in six years after entering the university as freshmen. These students were known as “Phuds” on campus.
The tragic fire caught the attention of many for years after. In April 2018, The New York Times published a longform profile of the fire and an alumnus’ quest to investigate its origins.
Among those who perished in the fire were three sophomores in the University’s six-year Ph.D. program: Martha Beck ’69, Peter Cooch ’69 and Jeffrey William Smith ’69. Anne McCormick ’67, a senior in the home economics program, and Jennie Zu Wei Sun ’68, a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences pre-med program, also died in the fire, as well as three graduate students: Meimei Chung Cheng, 22, Carol Lynn Kurtz, 22, and Johanna Christina Walden, 25.
The oldest student who perished, Walden, was 25. The youngest, Smith, was only 17.
Prof. John Alban Finch, English, was killed by the fire as he ran back and forth to pull students out of the burning building. He was 37.
Although Cornellians were grief-stricken by the fire at the time, the police investigation fell flat — no cause for the fire was ever determined. Students speculated the fire was an act of arson, as when the Phuds were placed in different housing, two other fires were reported. The University increased security measures at certain residencies, but mostly kept quiet on the situation.
As alumni and family members of the blaze’s victims gathered outside Sage Chapel, Paul Mermin ’70 — a member of the six-year Ph.D. program and survivor of the fire — reminisced on the brilliance of his friends and Finch.
“I struggle to imagine the three teenagers that I knew, Peter Cooch, Marty Beck, Jeff Smith, becoming full adults and living adult lives that did not come to pass,” Mermin said. “[They] were all hugely intelligent, the thing that they could not help knowing, but not any of them were full of themselves.”
One of the event’s other speakers, Sherry Carr ’67, MILR ’70, also echoed Mermin’s thoughts on the victims’ vitality. Carr described McCormic, who was one of her roommates during her time at Cornell, as a “dynamo” and fondly shared how she earned the moniker “Pygmy” because of her short stature.
While the speakers and alumni attending thanked the administration for putting the memorial together, many still critiqued what they saw as the University’s delayed and inadequate response to the fire.
“For the 19,000 sunrises and sunsets, in creating this beautiful memorial so long afterward, Cornell has done a handsome thing, and we are truly grateful,” Mermin said in his speech. “[T]his fire and these deaths have been nearly absent from the official histories of the University. That omission is partly rectified today … If Cornell were to acknowledge this truth, it would not just be handsome, but humble.”
Some alumni who lived in the building and survived the fire told The Sun that the incident had a traumatizing impact on their lives.
Jabez Van Cleef ’70, who lived on the first floor of the building, said he remembered the ordeal in vivid detail because it was traumatizing. He also shared that he believed he would not have survived the fire if he had not listened to his roommate, who recommended that they escape through the window, rather than the lobby.
“What happened has had a very disproportionate effect on our lives,” Van Cleef said. “It takes up a lot of mental real estate having survived an event like that.”
Joshua Freeman ’69 also lived on the first floor of the building. He said that the fire had life-long psychological impacts on some of the Cornellians who survived, and the University needed to do more to address what happened.
“I think it’s good that [the University] did this,” Freeman said. “I think it’s sad that after 50 years, they still can’t apologize or take responsibility. Obviously, the people who are here now were not here then, but the institution was here.”
Joel Malina, vice president for university relations, told The Sun that while the University cannot comment on the actions of past administrations, the current administration believed that it was “appropriate” to commemorate the lives lost in the fire.
Thomas Cooch, Peter Cooch’s brother, said he was happy to see the University finally acknowledge the tragic fire.
“I think [Mermin] did an excellent job of acknowledging what would not be said by the administration — that there was a great deal of complicity on the part of the University, but I feel mollified today by the beauty of this memorial,” Cooch said. “I haven’t been [to Cornell] in 52 years, but I’m glad I came back today.”