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January 31, 2013

February marks the 60th anniversary of the most serious disaster, at least of a physical nature, in the history of Antioch College: the North Hall Fire. The blaze began on Sunday afternoon, Feb 22nd, 1953, during the winter term with a full house of nearly 100 students living there. Miraculously, no one was injured or worse, a testament to the existence, not to mention the expertise, of the College’s student-operated fire department known as “Maples.” In case this is new information, for the lion’s share of the 20th century the College had its own in-house squad of first responders, undergraduates all, until the mid 1990s when the department was closed.

North Hall ablaze

Twice (and sometimes thrice) a week for much of 2012, Antiochiana hosted one of its more diligent and dedicated researchers in recent times: Antiochian, Maploid (as members of the department are affectionately known), and longtime local firefighter Mikey Chlanda. Six months or so of archival work resulted in the recently published Maples: A History of the Antioch College Fire Department, a testament (there’s that word again) to the genuine devotion that firefighters have to their craft in general and Antiochians have to Maples in particular. The book is available directly from the author at his website, mikechlanda.com.

It would be difficult to come up with a finer hour in the history of Maples than its leading role in combatting the North Hall fire, and the first published account of that hour by the campus newspaper is reprinted below. In the world of ever interchangeable titles, at that time the weekly paper was called The Antiochian, while The Record was a mimeographed daily entitled, not surprisingly, The Daily Record.

From The Antiochian EXTRA! Fire issue, 27 Feb 1953:

Fire devastates North Hall in Antioch’s worst blaze

by Chuck Pepper [class of 1954]

Antioch’s century old North hall was gutted by flames Sunday night in the worst fire in Antioch’s 100 year history.

The blaze, which had been eating at the dormitory’s attic for over an hour, was discovered at 6:55 by Ruff Read [class of 1956], a member of the Antioch fire squad. He immediately set off the college fire siren and called the Yellow Springs Fire department.

The smoke, which at this time was pouring out from under the roof along the whole length of the dormitory, was spotted at the same time by another group of men students, who ran into the building and alarmed the Antiochian office.

The college fire truck was on the scene within two minutes. The Yellow Springs squad arrived soon after.

All 99 freshman girls living in the dorm’s five halls were quickly evacuated. Most had time to grab only a few belongings.

Firemen from the two squads quickly ran a hose up the center stairwell. They were driven away from the attic door by the intense heat, and by the dense, resinous smoke which threatened to clog their filter smoke masks.

Forced to retreat

They then retreated to the top floor of the four-story building and knocked holes in the ceiling into the attic. The firemen shot streams of water through until ordered to leave the building.

Other firefighters meanwhile erected a ladder to the window on the west end of the attic. The window was smashed in an effort to release the trapped smoke. A hose, held at first by Bob Porter of the Yellow Springs squad, was aimed through the hole.

It soon became apparent that the fire was getting away from them. Flames licked through first at the northwest corner of the roof. Minutes later they broke through nearer the center of the roof’s northern slope.

Antiochian 'Extra' issue covering the fire

Yellow Springs Fire Chief James A. Dalrymple, who had been out of bed only a week following an operation, then ordered the men down. Other fire companies in the area, who had been alerted as soon as it was apparent that the fire was a major one, were asked to come help.

Trucks from Fairborn and Bath twp., Beavercreek, Hustead, Clifton, Beatty, Springfield, and North and South Xenia twp. answered the call. Soon after five pumpers were drawing water from all the five hydrants available.

Beavercreek’s truck supplied power for the spotlights firemen trained on the blazing building. Clifton was relieved soon after they arrived and stood by in the Yellow Springs station in case of another fire.

Pond water used

Springfield’s pumper was sent to draw water from the fire pond near the village power plant on the edge of Glen Helen. Xenia South’s pumper was used as a relay to help overcome friction loss.

Soon after 8 p.m. the fire had swept over the entire length of the attic and was eating downward, Hoses were trained on visible flames from the ground and from ladders erected on both ends and at the sides.

Students and faculty began organizing to save what equipment they could from the lower floors. Most of the valuable equipment from the ground floor offices of WABS, Audio-Visual Aids, AMPAC, and the Antiochian was removed. All the desk chairs in classroom 52 were saved.

Valuable books saved

Many valuable books and papers from the offices of faculty members [Professor of Literature] Nolan Miller, [Professor of French] Herman Schnurer and [Professor of German] Harry Steinhauer were rushed into the main building.

Firemen meanwhile were drawing as much water as the main could carry, but for a while it seemed as if it wouldn’t be enough. The Yellow Springs standpipe was quickly emptied and village water pumps were working at capacity.

Firemen manning pumpers had to watch their gauges carefully to prevent trying to pull more water than was possible and thereby drawing a vacuum. The fire pond relay helped alleviate the situation.

The big Springfield truck was pumping water at its capacity, 750 gallons a minute. Firemen at the pond estimated that they lowered the level of the pond by a foot.

Streams of water concentrating on the east and west ends of North hall soon succeeded at checking the downward spread of the fire there. Little damage below the fourth floor on these ends was due to flames.

Shaft housing safe

A concrete lined shaft housing the stairwell and plumbing was virtually undamaged except from falling timbers. The fire worked closest to the ground however, on both sides of this shaft, either because of some inflammable wall that drew the fire down or because water couldn’t be shot into those sections as well as elsewhere.

The firemen were exhausted by the grueling work, Two men entered the Fairborn disaster truck to rest and were given oxygen to help them breathe, giving rise to reports that they were overcome by smoke.

Many firefighters, between 15 and 20 according to the disaster truck’s estimate, were treated for cuts. Almost all these cases were minor cuts, however, the sort of thing you can expect at any fire, according to Chief Dalrymple.

By 11:30 it became apparent that the fire could be checked with most of the damage confined to the two top floors. Sometime after midnight, only small, isolated blazes remained.

On scene for hours

Most firemen stayed at the scene for several more hours. Fairborn’s last truck, manned by a relief crew that took over about midnight, checked in at 4:55 a.m. Both the college and the Yellow Springs trucks pumped continuously until after dawn, 12 straight hours.

Chief Dalrymple left the site from 4:30 to 7 a.m. Though weakened by his confinement, he stayed up most of Monday inspecting the remains with the state fire marshals. He estimates that he was on his feet for 24½ straight hours, not counting the time he took off for a quick nap.

The chief was forced to stay on the job because the assistant chief, Harold Coffman, was in bed with influenza. When he learned of the fire he tried to get out of bed but fell flat on his face, according to Chief Warner.

Wiring may be cause

Chief Dalrymple, who said the blaze probably was caused by faulty electrical wiring, said that the firemen’s main problem was created by the tin roof. The roof kept the fire bottled up in the attic instead of letting it burn on up and freezing some of the intense heat and smoke, he said, making it impossible to get to the attic to combat the flames.

A sprinkler system there would have materially reduced the loss, Dalrymple said. The water probably couldn’t have extinguished the fire, he indicated, but it would have helped keep the place cooler and would have set off an automatic alarm when the temperature rose above 160 degrees.

[College Business Manager] Mort Rauh reported that he had a signed statement from Al Lapiner, Antioch co-op who was visiting campus, that he had been in the North hall attic at 4 p.m. Sunday but had noticed no indication of fire.

This report seemed to indicate that the fire hadn’t begun fairly early in the day, although several groups of North hall girls remember smelling smoke as early as 10 a.m.