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Westgate Fire Due to Broken Steam Coil

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: The Feb. 21 article “Westgate Fire Due to Broken Steam Coil” incompletely described MIT Housing involvement in assisting Westgate residents while they were evacuated from the high rise part of the building. Although residents bought food with their own cash, Housing reimbursed them, as reported in Friday’s article “Westgate Will Receive Power Through Tieline Power to be Provided by Tang Hall Connection.”

By Kevin Der
CONTRIBUTING EDITOR

A basement electrical fire forced residents of the Westgate apartments to evacuate the building around 10:30 a.m. Sunday. Westgate President Giorgia Bettin G said that nobody was injured.

Water leakage in the high-voltage room shorted out a transformer, filling the basement with smoke and causing the building to lose power, said Stephen Lemieux, a generator mechanic at the MIT Department of Facilities. The leakage came from a broken steam coil, according to the MIT Information and Services Technology Web site 3DOWN (http://is3down.mit.edu/), which documents the status of some services at MIT.

Emergency power was not restored in the building until around 9 p.m. Sunday, said Lemieux. A small natural gas generator was used to provide emergency lighting and functionality for the fire alarm systems, he said. Heat and hot water, powered by a steam boiler at the MIT power plant, were also available. Westgate residents could not return until after 10:30 p.m.

After evacuating, the residents initially waited inside the lobby of the adjacent Tang dormitory, the designated evacuation area, “without wallets, in pajamas, carrying babies,” Bettin said. When the lobby overflowed, Bettin and other members of Westgate government organized a move to a lounge on the twenty-fourth floor of Tang.

Bettin said firefighters told her that they had difficulty extinguishing the fire because a possible live current in the high-voltage room prevented the use of water, and thick smoke also contributed to the trouble. Gray smoke could be seen rising from a grate near the building’s entrance until at least 4 p.m., she said.

A Cambridge deputy fire chief on duty Monday afternoon declined to comment about the fire.

Westgate operated on emergency power through Monday afternoon, when the Department of Facilities switched the building power over to a larger, portable generator in order to restore full power to the apartments. Residents were allowed to remain inside their apartments during the transition. It is unclear whether Westgate has since gone off the larger generator to its normal power source.

On Sunday, residents bought food and supplies without assistance from MIT Housing in order to subsist throughout the day. “I was surprised there was no immediate response from the housing office,” said Bettin. She said that Karen A. Nilsson, associate dean and director of housing, and a representative from the Environment, Health, and Safety Office arrived at around 6 p.m. to update residents.

Flyers posted around the building yesterday instructed residents not to use stoves and microwaves. The Westgate government coordinated free meals at Next House and Tang, provided by MIT dining.

Bettin said that smoke traveled up into the floors above and “got trapped in the carpets,” but was contained to apartment hallways. Cleaning crews worked on Monday to eliminate the smoke residue on floors and walls, he said. By Monday afternoon, though, the smell of smoke was still strong throughout the building.

It is not clear if the smoke will pose health problems for the residents, which include young children. The Westgate child care facility on the first floor of the building was not damaged.