CULLOWHEE – The State Bureau of Investigation and the Western Carolina University Police Department are working to determine the cause of a small fire that forced about 400 students and staff members to evacuate Walker Residence Hall for five hours during the afternoon and evening of Monday, Feb. 13.
Smoke was initially reported near the elevator in a lobby area on the fifth floor of Walker Hall shortly after 5 p.m., prompting the immediate evacuation of residents, said Shane Stovall, WCU director of emergency services. No injuries were reported.
Smoke and fire alarms activated appropriately, resulting in a large-scale response from firefighters from the Cullowhee, Sylva, Savannah and Balsam fire departments, as well as from numerous other emergency response units.
Campus police officers, who were the first on the scene, smothered the blaze using a hand-held fire extinguisher, said WCU Police Chief Ernie Hudson.
Firefighters and other emergency responders conducted a floor-by-floor sweep of the building to ensure that all students and staff had evacuated the premises and that the fire had not spread to other parts of the nine-story building, said Stovall.
The building was reopened to students and staff at 10:17 p.m. after staff members from the Office of Facilities Management scrambled to clean up the area that was damaged by the fire.
During the evacuation period, the Campus Recreation Center and Courtyard Dining Hall remained opened so that affected students had a place to wait until the evacuation order was canceled, with free food offered to help pass the time, said Keith Corzine, WCU assistant vice chancellor for campus services.
“I am proud of the way that Residential Living staff, other members of the Division of Student Affairs team and our friends across campus, including Facilities Management, responded to this event,” Corzine said. “They did some really good work moving the students away from Walker to the rec center and dining hall, communicating with them last night and getting the building back online as quickly as possible.”
The Department of Emergency Services sent five emails to the campus community during the time period that Walker Hall was evacuated, and Kevin Koett, WCU dean of students, sent email communications to parents.
As the investigation continues, campus police are increasing their walking patrols and maintaining a high level of visibility around the Walker Hall area, Hudson said.
“Working with the SBI, we are continuing to conduct interviews in this on-going investigation,” he said. “Our primary concern last night was, as it always is, the safety and security of students and staff.”
In addition to the four local fire departments, Jackson County Emergency Management, Jackson County Fire Marshal, Harris Emergency Medical Services and WCU Emergency Medical Services also responded to the alarm.
“The emergency processes that we have in place at the university, which we practice through a variety of exercises throughout the year, seemed to work very well last night,” said Mike Byers, WCU vice chancellor for administration and finance. “We are especially thankful for our mutual aid partners from across the county who rolled in to provide support, many of them for several hours.”
Contrary to rumors that circulated on social media, there was no water damage to rooms and personal belongings in Walker Hall, Hudson said.
“We encourage students and others against engaging in speculation and sharing misinformation, especially through social media,” he said. “As always, official information will come through the appropriate university offices and channels as soon as it is available.”
Anyone with information about the fire is asked to call University Police at 828-227-7301.