November 18, 2005

Arsonist strikes four campus buildings

A series of four small intentional fires were set in University buildings on Monday and Tuesday. While no injuries were reported and there was only “modest” damage, all fires involved a flammable liquid and were confirmed by the Chicago Police Department (CPD) as arson.

The University said in a news release Wednesday that a “female person of interest” was apprehended by the bomb and arson unit of the CPD and taken in for questioning. An NBC5 news broadcast last night said the woman being questioned was an alumna of the University and in her 30s. The University has not yet confirmed this.

One fire was set Monday in Swift Hall, and three others occurred within a small time frame Tuesday afternoon in three buildings: Kent, Ryerson, and Eckhart halls.

According to media spokesperson Larry Langford, the Chicago Fire Department has turned all its evidence over to the bomb and arson section of the CPD. “Our official report will say the fires were incendiary,” Langford said. “The police will determine arson and suspects.”

The first fire occurred Monday morning in Swift. A flammable substance was poured on the door to the first floor common room and lit on fire. The Chicago Fire Department extinguished the fire, and inspectors collected samples from the door to look for evidence of arson.

According to a news release from the University posted Tuesday evening, the second fire occurred at 2:05 p.m. outside a lecture hall on the first floor of Kent, when a flammable liquid was spread on a table and wall unit and ignited. The table was damaged slightly.

The building’s fire alarm sounded, and students in the laboratories were evacuated.

“There was a lot of smoke and it smelled very toxic as we left the building,” said Sarah Kamhawi, a third-year in the College, who was in Kent when the fire occurred. The Chicago Fire Department Hazardous Incident Team arrived, and, according to Langford, determined that no hazardous materials were involved in the fire.

After 40 minutes, students were informed that their class was canceled.

“We couldn’t go back in to get our stuff until an hour or so later,” said Dan Johnson, a second-year in the College who was in an organic chemistry lab at the time. “Then we had to be police-escorted to get our belongings because they said the fire was intentional.”

The Chicago Fire Department put out the fire. “We found a bottle containing gasoline,” said a firefighter on the scene. “Someone poured the liquid all over a table and lit it on fire.”

At 2:35 p.m. a fire broke out in an elevator in Ryerson when a flammable liquid was ignited. A small group of faculty and staff members extinguished the fire, the release said.

At 3 p.m. a stack of papers on the first floor of Eckhart was set on fire. Professor Kirk Wolter in the Statistics Department noticed the fire and put it out.

At 3:20 p.m. Provost Richard Saller sent out a campus-wide e-mail notice about the intentional fires. “Police departments are fully engaged,” the e-mail said. It also advised the University community to “be very vigilant, and report any suspicious activity immediately.”

At 5 p.m. the CPD completely shut down the Kent, Jones, and Searle chemistry laboratories to pursue their investigations. As a precautionary measure, several buildings within the Physical Sciences Division were also evacuated.

Shoreland students were awakened by a late-night fire scare at 1:30 a.m. Thursday, when the fire alarm for the building went off. Students scrambled down the stairs and filed onto the lawn across the street in freezing weather. The Chicago Fire Department arrived for what turned out to be a false alarm.

“It was pretty scary,” said Lana Harfoush, a second-year Shoreland resident. “After the arson on campus earlier, I immediately thought someone set fire to the Shoreland and we needed to get out quickly.”

Eckart, Kent, and Ryerson were all reopened Wednesday.

The bomb and arson unit of the CPD is continuing its investigation. However, “the investigation is slow,” said Patrick Camden, Deputy Director of Chicago Police News and Affairs Department. He confirmed that a “female person of interest” was taken in for questioning, but that no charges had been made as of yesterday afternoon.

When asked what disciplinary consequences the arsonist would face, Martina Munsters, deputy dean of students in the University for student affairs, responded:

“Disciplinary procedures are confidential and we never discuss those. Of course, were a student to be accused of having committed arson, we would take that very, very seriously.”

Further information concerning the fires is expected to surface as the investigation continues. “No further information will be disclosed until official charges have been made,” Camden said.