Fatal fire at Wesleyan fraternity stuns campus
By Paul Hammel, WORLD-HERALD BUREAULINCOLN --
A burning sensation in his lungs and an inability to breathe startled Grant Johnson awake before 4 a.m. Friday. His fraternity house, the 78-year-old Phi Kappa Tau house at Nebraska Wesleyan University, was on fire.
Thick smoke blocked his exit down a hallway.
Before Johnson, a 22-year-old senior from Lincoln, could jump from his second-floor window, Lincoln firefighters arrived and helped him scramble to safety down a ladder.
But Johnson's next-door fraternity brother, Ryan Stewart, 19, a sophomore from Ord, Neb., wasn't as lucky.Stewart, whom Johnson described as a modest and selfless friend, died after he was taken to Lincoln's St. Elizabeth Regional Medical Center.
Three other fraternity members were injured and remained in critical but stable condition in the hospital's burn unit, said spokeswoman Jo Miller.They were identified as David Spittler, a junior from Elkhorn, Neb.; Travis Mann, a senior from Beatrice; and Aaron McGuire, a sophomore from Sioux Falls, S.D.
"From what I'm told, I'm very lucky. . . . The smoke puts people to sleep," said Johnson, who also is student body president at Nebraska Wesleyan. "For my peace of mind, I hope that's what happened to Ryan."
Fire investigators combed through the charred remains of the fraternity's second floor Friday afternoon.
The blaze occurred on the second night of "activation," or initiation ceremonies, for 16 new fraternity members.
Thirty-nine people were in the house when the fire was reported about 4 a.m.Johnson said he had no idea what could have caused the fire. He acknowledged that some fraternity members had been drinking alcohol during the night.
He said initiation events had concluded about an hour before the fire was discovered, and that those activities had been conducted on the first floor."I have no reason to believe that the fire had anything to do with the orientation," Johnson said.
He said the thick smoke that blocked his exit from his bedroom had spread down the second-floor hallway of the brick house, which recently was named to the National Registry of Historic Places.
So Johnson turned to his window, which faces Wesleyan's basketball arena, Knight Field House, across the street. He said flames were shooting from Stewart's bedroom window just a few feet away."When I opened the window, all the black smoke poured out and the flames were sucked in," Johnson said.
He said there was no time to try to rescue his friend, and no way to enter Stewart's bedroom because of a plume of flame at his window."From what I understand, it went pretty fast," Johnson said.
Firefighters broke down at least three bedroom doors to reach fraternity members, Johnson said. He thought at least a half-dozen fraternity members were led to safety.
"The fire department did an absolutely amazing job," he said.
Word of the deadly fire quickly spread on the 1,600-student campus, located in north-central Lincoln.
The fraternity sits on private property, across the street from the field house. Fraternity members, along with family members and fraternity alumni, took refuge in the field house, where grief counselors and Red Cross personnel were available.
The brick fraternity house is the second-oldest building at the school, which was founded in 1887."It's probably the most impressive-looking fraternity on campus," said James Schaffer, chairman of the English department. "It just looks like a fraternity."
Wesleyan students gathered in groups to look at the blackened building as Lincoln fire investigators probed for clues about the fire's cause.
"People are shocked," said interim university President Joe Gow, his eyes welling. "It's been hard to watch students learn about this tragedy. It's pretty hard to see the grief."
Sara Olson, spokeswoman for the university, said each room in the house was equipped with a smoke detector. But the house was not fitted with a fire sprinkler system, which would have dramatically changed the outcome, said interim Lincoln Fire Chief Dan Wright. He said such a system would not have been legally required in such an old structure.
Reports were being forwarded to the Lancaster County Attorney's Office, which Wright said is routine for any fatal fire. That office declined to comment.
Ironically, the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity had just begun discussing a fundraising drive for the house. One of the improvements being contemplated was installation of a fire-suppression system.
Stewart was a business major. Johnson described him as the kind of person who did a lot of work behind the scenes, but never sought credit."He was probably the most genuine and sincere person I've ever met -- he'd always tell you how it is," Johnson said.
Lisa Wilkinson, a Wesleyan philosophy professor, served as Stewart's academic adviser and taught him in two courses last year. She said Stewart would quietly take in a back-and-forth discussion in her freshman-level liberal arts seminar, then offer a comment that would crack up his classmates and cut straight to the heart of the debate.
Wilkinson spent part of Friday consoling the other students from that class as they grappled with Stewart's death. "He was a presence of light for those of us who knew him," Wilkinson said. "He was just a sweet, sweet kid."
The blaze marks the third time a fraternity house in Lincoln has caught fire in the past three months.In August, FarmHouse fraternity members at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln were forced to move out for a weekend after a fire in the fraternity's attic. A minor fire cleared UNL's Phi Gamma Delta fraternity in September, when trash caught fire in the house's basement.No one was injured in either UNL fraternity fire. Rick Campos, a Lincoln fire inspector, had planned a fire safety seminar for fraternities and sororities at UNL and Wesleyan after the second fraternity house fire. The program was canceled because of a lack of interest, Campos said Friday.
Copyright 2006 The Omaha World-Herald Company