Arson probed: Fire closes part of Student Center

Sections of the Student Center will remain closed for months following a suspicious fire Jan. 15 in one of the lower-level storage rooms. 

The cause of the fire has not been determined, but an investigation is ongoing.

“The university is doing a full investigation on the cause of the fire,” said Public Safety Chief Letitia Williams. “With a large-scale incident of this kind, it is proper protocol for Public Safety to work in tandem with the Detroit Fire Department and Arson Division. While the investigation is still open, no further information is available at this time.”

Drew Peters, assistant director of Student Life, was working in the lower level of the center with Karic Jones, president of the Student Government Association, in preparation for the night’s bonfire, when they saw the space below the storage room door glowing. Flames were reflecting off the linoleum floor tiles.

“It was like watching the back of a wood-fired oven,” Peters said. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”

He remembers there being no smell of smoke.

“I walked closer to the door and I could hear the fire crackling inside,” he said. “I ran up the stairs to Public Safety and I got two officers down there immediately.”

At that point, Peters and Jones started telling students to evacuate the Student Center.

Lt. Randy Martin came down the stairs with a fire extinguisher and ordered the officers to open the storage room doors, Peters said.

Smoke quickly flowed out of the room, and Martin told the officers to call the fire department.

Peters was exiting the building when he saw Chief Williams and Commander Joel Gallihugh racing down the stairs. He directed them toward the storage room.

Peters remembered that he had several fire extinguishers in his office on hand for the night’s bonfire, so he quickly ran up and retrieved them.

He tried to bring them into the basement, but he said he couldn’t see anything and the entire floor was “a wall of smoke.”

He left the extinguishers on the first floor and went outside, where he saw those who had been evacuated from the Student Center and Fisher Administration Center.

At the time, Peters realized that there was not going to be a bonfire that night, as eight fire trucks had arrived on campus.

He was happy to see that everyone escaped safely and the Detroit Fire Department was quick to act. 

During the fire, smoke traveled through the vents and ducts throughout the building and even into Fisher.

It is anticipated that most of the building, aside from Dining Services, the bookstore and Grounds Coffeehaus, will be closed for another couple of months.

The ballroom and Fountain Lounge are likely both going to need new carpeting and ceiling tiles because of severe smoke damage.

Events scheduled for those spaces are being moved to other locations.