The Morton Fire

Smoke pours from Morton hall as firefighters battle the flames.

Smoke pours from Morton hall as firefighters battle the flames.

In his 1940 essay “Inside the Whale,” George Orwell explained that “So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.” We at The Review wholeheartedly concur and posit that Orwell’s theory also extends to the average college student, even those in Hanover, New Hampshire.

At 12:07 AM on October 1st, a fire broke out in Morton Hall, part of the East Wheelock cluster, due to a student’s use of a charcoal hibachi grill on the roof. The fire, which was not extinguished until six hours later, burned through the middle section of the dorm, causing smoke and water damage throughout the entire building. Sixty-seven students were displaced, scattered around campus that night, and later assigned to a wide variety of rooms across Hanover. At this time, no consequences have been levied against the offending party, and the ultimate fate of the building itself is still unknown.

Ironically, the evening before, at approximately 5:00 PM – only seven hours before the fire – Dartmouth’s Safety and Security department released the annual Security and Fire Safety Report. A simple glance through the publication would have revealed “charcoal grills” listed as the third item on a list of items not permitted in campus residential facilities. The report goes on to list six fire incidents in the year 2015, most of which were unintentional. In fact, a fire of the scale of Morton’s has not occurred at the College in recent memory. However, one does recall the 1904 fire at Dartmouth Hall caused by faulty wiring, which leveled the building. The final cost of that reconstruction topped $100,000. Given the College’s recent track record with building expenses, the Review estimates Morton’s refurbishment will top $20 million.

The process of extinguishing the fire, according to authorities, was quite complicated. Due to the roof’s construction, which featured a high roof to allow for air circulation, Firefighters were forced to saw through and rip off the copper roofing in order to reach the wooden beams on fire within the structure. The roofing was still strewn about on the lawn the next day. Aerial photographs obtained by the Review clearly show the flat section of roof adjacent to a window where the fire originated.

College reaction to the fire was swift and effective. Though providing permanent housing on such short notice was essentially impossible, every student was provided with a place to stay that night. The majority of “refugees” spent the first night in friends’ rooms, but the College opened up Dick’s House as well to house students. Safety and Security worked tirelessly to make sure all students were accounted for; ultimately, there were no injuries as a result of the fire. Red Cross officials arrived soon after the fire, providing basic essentials (toiletries, bedding, etc.) and financial assistance to students. Technology Services immediately offered loaner equipment to students who lost computing devices in the fire, and also offered free data recovery. In addition, Alpha Xi Delta and Alpha Kappa Alpha have organized a donation drive, gathering clothing, essentials, and school supplies for students who lost belongings in the fire. Professors were also quite accommodating, under direction from the administration. President Hanlon, in addition to Vice Provost for Student Affairs Inge-Lise Ameer were present for meetings with students on the Saturday following the fire. President Hanlon also sent an email to campus on the Monday after the disaster, reflecting on the situation for Morton students:

“The residents of Morton Hall have lost their rooms for this term and some students lost all of their possessions. Over the weekend, we provided all the residents with new rooms. Our staff and the Red Cross worked through the weekend to supply residents with emergency provisions, and we are working to help them replace lost items. But the disruption to the students is profound, and some of the things they lost are irreplaceable. I met with the residents of Morton on Saturday to express my support for them.

At this difficult time, I am reminded of the importance of community, how much we rely on the help and goodwill of others, and how essential it is for each of us to support our friends and neighbors. I am moved and humbled to be a part of such a remarkable community.”

It is unknown whether the damage to the structure is significant enough to warrant a rebuilding, but Morton will be closed at least through the end of fall term. Clean-up efforts are currently underway.         

  • Observer70

    Some early reports on the fire contained quotes suggesting that roof-top grilling was an open secret among some students. Those quotes have disappeared from later reports. Were they erroneous? (I hope so.)