The grand ballroom of the University of Maryland, destroyed Wednesday night by a $1 million fire, lacked sprinklers and smoke alarms and several of the manual fire alarms in the building malfunctioned, university officials said.
Several hundred people fled the building without injury as flames shot through the roof of the 900-seat ballroom. Fire officials said the fire started in a lounge adjacent to the ballroom. Both rooms were unused, although 13 student groups were in other parts of the Student Union Building, including 200 people watching a movie, "Stripes."
Witnesses reported they did not hear fire-alarm sirens until well after firefighters arrived.
"Where the fire started there was no detection system," said Harry Kriemelmeyer, director of the campus physical plant. "We believe the fire therefore got a head start of some several minutes."
"Clearly, there's no question that if the room were sprinklered or if it had been occupied, it would have been a minor fire," said State Fire Marshal James C. Robertson.
The massive fire occurred four months before $70,000 worth of fire safety improvements for the Student Union, including smoke alarms for the ballroom, were scheduled, said Kriemelmeyer.
Robertson said that his office previously had cited a number of fire safety violations at the campus, forcing the school to make several building improvements. The fire marshal said none of the outstanding deficiencies contributed to the ballroom fire, however. He added that smoke alarms and sprinklers are not required for rooms such as the ballroom under the Maryland fire code.
One student, who asked not to be identified, was working in an office next to the ballroom lounge when he heard the fire and ran through the halls warning people. He said he pulled at least three manual fire alarms as he ran, but none of them sounded.
About 75 students were gathered in one room, a forum on financial aid that was attended by university President John Toll. "Right in the middle, an employe came in and said very casually there was a fire in the building," said Steve Raley, the student government president, who hosted the forum. "We didn't hear any alarms and we didn't think it was serious. Thank God that guy came in."
Those working in the building said the alarms have worked many times in the past when there was no fire. "You wouldn't believe how many times the fire alarms go off here and we have to go outside for nothing," said Louise Gower, reservations secretary at the union. "Why it wasn't working last night I'll never know."
Among those using the building when the fire started shortly after 8 p.m. were elderly College Park Rotarians attending a dinner in the cafeteria, Gower said.
It took some 80 firefighters from 12 departments nearly two hours to bring the spectacular blaze under control. Damage to the high-columned, three-story building was limited to the ballroom and the heavily carpeted and draped lounge where the fire started, according to fire officials.
Campus safety engineers conduct fire inspections at the university on behalf of the state fire marshal's office, explained Robert Ryan, environmental safety engineer for the university. The most recent inspection was in September. Ryan said there was a list of deficiencies that he would not release because of the pending investigation. "But," he said, "I don't think anything found in our report would have prevented the fire."
As a result of the fire, Kriemelmeyer said he plans to include a sprinkler system for the ballroom lounge in the proposed safety improvements for the building.
"With in excess of 200 buildings, however, there is not a one-year solution," Kriemelmeyer said of the university's efforts to upgrade campus fire safety, begun in 1978.