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New House Blaze Cause Disputed

By Brian Rosenberg
Editor in Chief

A fire that gutted New House Room 507 Tuesday afternoon resulted from an electrical fault in a computer, according to Cambridge Fire Department officials.

But Dale L. LeFebvre '93, the room's former occupant, disputes this claim, saying a heating unit in the wall started the blaze.

The MIT Safety Office is still investigating the fire and has not determined its cause, according to Safety Officer Walter G. Diaz.

Damage from the fire itself was restricted to Room 507, said New House house manager Louise Keohane. "Some of the students' carpets on the fifth floor were damaged by the water, and we may have to replace the carpet in the hall outside [Room 507] if the smoke smell persists," she said.

LeFebvre has been temporarily moved into MacGregor House. Griffin L. Davis '93, LeFebvre's neighbor, spent Tuesday night in McCormick House because the firefighters broke his window, according to Keohane. Davis has returned to his room, she said.

Dispute over cause of fire

LeFebvre said he left his room just before 1 p.m. Tuesday. "When I left, the heat had just been turned on, and me and a couple other people smelled something, but we didn't think anything of it. When I got back at 4:45, I opened the door, and my bookshelf and part of the wall behind my desk were on fire," he said.

Keohane rejected this idea, saying there was no heat in the dormitory on Tuesday. "I didn't call the Housing Office to ask them to turn it on until Wednesday morning. It's still not on now," she said yesterday. "Besides, we have steam heat, not electric heat, so it's absurd that [the heater] could have started the fire," she added.

LeFebvre said he thinks the heater could have started the blaze even if the heat had not been turned on. "My contention is not that the heater got too hot and burned the wall. ... it's that something happened in the wiring leading to the heater," he said.

"There's an electric switch for the heater, and if you turn that switch on anytime during the year, air blows out of the heater, even if the heat isn't on," he said.

Inspector Kenneth Clark, who conducted the Cambridge Fire Department's investigation of the fire, said he concluded that the fire originated in the computer in part because "it was destroyed the worst. ... It was the most damaged appliance in the room."

LeFebvre maintains that his computer was not burning when he entered the room. "My computer couldn't have started the fire because it was sitting on my desk, and the top of the desk is still white. If the monitor had started the fire, the desk would be black," he said.

"If you look around my room, you can see that the heater was near the center of the fire," LeFebvre said. "The only section of the wall that's totally gone is above the heater," he added.

LeFebvre said he thought most of the fire-detection and fire-fighting equipment in the area did not function properly during the fire. "The first fire extinguisher I got couldn't have lasted more than four seconds," he said. "Also, the sprinklers didn't go off while I was there, and only the smoke detector at the far end of the hall, went off," he added.

Keohane said, "I don't believe that, because there's [a smoke alarm] right across from his door, and we test them once a month."

Diaz said, however, that only one smoke alarm went off. He added that the sprinkler head just outside LeFebvre's room also functioned. Firefighters at the scene also said some sprinklers had operated, though they were unsure how many.

Diaz said the fire extinguisher may have only worked for a short time, but thought 20 seconds was the shortest time an extinguisher would operate. "It varies with the type of extinguisher and what you're discharging, but the most critical thing is size. It's not inconceivable to only get 20 seconds, though you usually get more." he said.

LeFebvre said he was concerned about the cost of replacing the possessions he lost in the fire. He said that several administrators, including Clarence G. Williams, special assistant to the president, had been very helpful in the fire's aftermath.