May 13, 2008
Frat fire cause unknown; damage estimated at $750,000
By Samara Kalk Derby
Instead of cramming for finals, 25 members of the Sigma Phi Epsilon
fraternity sat on a Metro Transit bus early this morning at the corner of
Langdon and Frances streets keeping warm as dozens of Madison firefighters
battled a massive fire that enveloped their fraternity house.
The fire department got the first call at 11:41 p.m. Monday after a city of
Madison police officer noticed a glow that she thought was a grill at the
back of the house, said Madison Fire Department spokeswoman Bernadette
Galvez. When the officer investigated she found that the back of the house
was on fire, Galvez said.
“It’s good to know everybody’s out and safe,” she said at the scene as the
firefighters behind her pumped 1,000 gallons of water a minute into the top
level of the three-story wooden house at 237 Langdon St.
The investigation into the fire was just beginning Tuesday morning as
firefighters continued to put out hot spots and were most likely to be on
the scene throughout the morning.
“We’re just being able to get inside the building,” Galvez said. “We still
have a ladder up, putting out spot fires.”
No cause of the fire had been determined yet. The Madison Police Department
is assisting in the investigation.
Fire Chief Debra Amesqua ordered all of the firefighters to leave the house
because she feared structural collapse, Galvez said.
“A lot of fire was coming out of that building,” she said. “Once fire gets
into the attic, that’s free space for it to burn.”
The fire was put out about three hours later at 2:38 a.m. A cause won’t be
determined for a few days, Galvez said.
Damage is estimated at $750,000.
Police officers sealed off Langdon Street at Frances Street, so spectators
wouldn’t get in the way of the firehoses. About 100 onlookers, mainly
students, gathered at the corner. Dozens more congregated in front of the
Campus Inn, where the bus was parked sheltering the fraternity brothers.
Langdon Street was still blocked by fire equipment at 6 a.m. Madison police
said the street will most likely be blocked through the morning commute, so
motorists should use alternate routes.
“It’s still smoldering,” said Division Chief Arthur Price. “There’s still
smoke and steam coming out of it.”
Price said it was hard to say just how long firefighters would remain on
“It’s an old, Victorian building,” Price said, “with a lot of nooks and
crannies. We want it out.”
The Madison Fire Department sent 14 vehicles to the fire and a total of 48
personnel, including chiefs, Galvez said. One firefighter suffered a
suffered from dehydration and exertion, she said.
The Sigma Phi Epsilon house, built in the 1890s, is nestled into the bend
on Langdon Street. Emergency workers evacuated the two buildings on either
side of the house, neither of which was damaged by the blaze. Residents of
the neighboring buildings were allowed back in at 3 a.m.
The 13-bedroom house was completely repaired after a fire in the summer of
1999 that caused $500,000 in damage. Because it was summer, there were only
six residents and one guest staying at the house at the time.
“This is the different in that it’s a total loss,” said Ryan Sugden, vice
president for the Sigma Phi Epsilon alumni board, who lived in the house
from 2003 to 2005. This time, there were 25 fraternity members living in a
house that at maximum occupancy can house 30, Sugden said.
“It’s a total loss. Nothing will be recovered from that house,” he said.
Sugden said that after the 1999 fire a new fire alarm system was installed
in the house. “That played a role in getting all the residents out safely,”
The building did not have a sprinkler system, he said, a fact pointed out
by Galvez, the fire department spokeswoman, who said that all newer
construction student housing has sprinkler systems.
Ald. Eli Judge, who represents the UW campus and lives across the street,
began to smell smoke and hear sirens at 11:50 p.m. He went outside and saw
the back of Sigma Phi Epsilon on fire.
“Almost immediately, fire trucks started pulling up. I think the fire
department’s done a remarkable job tonight, especially with the nature of
these old houses in the Langdon area,” he said.
As a student, Judge sympathized with the fraternity members. “It doesn’t
help that it’s the middle of finals week,” he said.
Sugden noted that more than half of the victims have finals Tuesday.
UW-Madison Dean of Students Lori Berquam was also concerned about the
impact of finals week and pointed out that the victims will not be able to
access the materials they need to study.
“Most of them were only able to get out with the clothes on their back,
maybe their bookbag, so we wanted to certainly support them during this
terrible situation and give them the resources that they need to carry on,”
Berquam said the fraternity members all indicated that they had friends to
stay with immediately and didn’t need Red Cross support. “Where they will
be staying in the coming days, that we need to work on,” she said.
Argyle Wade, associate dean in the Offices of the Dean of Students, said
his office will issue checks from the “Student Crisis Loan Fund,” a fund
established for emergencies through private donations. The fraternity
members will be able to purchase what they need — clothing, food, housing
and other basic essentials — to get them through finals, Wade said.
His office will also be contacting the students’ professors to ask for
further assistance in helping the victims complete their class work for the
rest of the semester. Health services and counseling services on campus
will also continue to make resources available, he said.
“Beyond that, it’s working one-on-one. Each student will have unique
needs,” Wade said.
The fraternity made news last week as UW-Madison officials investigated a
possible reverse hazing incident at the frat in which human excrement and
vomit were dumped on fraternity members.
Sugden said he was grateful for all the help and concern at the scene. “The
support from the community — from the dean of students, students, the Red
Cross, Madison police and fire — has been overwhelming and very much
appreciated,” he said.
He said that for the hundreds, if not more than 1,000, “Sig Eps” who have
lived in the house and used it as a fraternity home for the past 10 or so
years, the house holds a lot of history and memories.
“It’s a tough loss for us, but thankfully everybody is out safely. That’s
the most critical aspect of this.”
The Capital Times’ Bill Novak contributed to this report.
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