- The Washington Times - Monday, April 22, 2002

FARMVILLE, Va. Longwood College President Patricia Cormier said she still had nightmares about the fire that destroyed a landmark academic complex and damaged four dormitories nearly a year ago.
Then she would wake up and the aching sense of loss would be replaced by gratitude: for the generosity of neighbors and colleagues, the valiant efforts of volunteer firefighters and the way the school's 4,100 students supported each other during the school's darkest hour.
Most of all, she was grateful that she was spared "a president's worst nightmare to have to stand in front of a parent and say, 'I lost your child.'"
Nobody was injured in the April 24, 2001, fire. Faculty members were gone when the fire started around 9 p.m., and the flames and smoke did not endanger the nearby dorms until a couple of hours later plenty of time to make sure nobody was inside.
The Ruffner Hall academic complex, including the school's centerpiece Rotunda, was destroyed. The complex, built in the 1880s, had been emptied for a $12 million renovation, and the work had just begun.
Another academic building, 98-year-old Grainger Hall, was so badly damaged that college officials decided to tear it down and rebuild. Construction is expected to begin this summer, cost up to $60 million and take up to three years.
The four dorms sustained water and smoke damage but later reopened.
Richard Bratcher, the college's vice president for facilities and technology, said the fire was so hot approximately 2,000 degrees that it left little evidence. Investigators were able to determine only that the fire started in an area where a construction worker had been using a torch. The fire was ruled an accident.
Miss Cormier said the fire brought blessings as well as heartache.
"I had telephone calls from every college president in Virginia, and I had calls from presidents all over the United States. Every one said, 'What do you need from us? What do you want us to do?' You'd be amazed how people come through in your time of need," she said.
The fire was still raging, and most students who lived on campus were across the street watching and some weeping when the first offers of help from Farmville residents began arriving. About 350 dormitory residents had been displaced, leaving behind everything but the clothes they were wearing.
"People from the neighborhoods were coming here in droves, offering to take kids in," Miss Cormier said. "But when something like this happens, they don't want to be separated from each other. So keeping them together was very important."
Mattresses taken to the gymnasium for the displaced students went mostly unused.
"Kids just came out of the other residence halls and said, 'You're staying with us tonight; you're not going to that gym.' The response was one of tremendous support," Miss Cormier said.
Fourteen classrooms were destroyed and 30 faculty members were displaced. Four trailers were brought in to house the Department of English, Philosophy and Modern Languages, which had occupied the first three floors of Grainger Hall.
"The first week or so after the fire, we were pretty numb," said McRae Amoss, chairman of the department. "People felt discombobulated because we didn't have anyplace to be. We didn't have our regular access to phones and computers."
Professors in his department thought it was important to stay together, so Mr. Amoss was pleased with the establishment of "our academical trailer village." The trailers have worked out fine, he said, although he misses the convenience of having classrooms and offices in the same building.
The fire occurred a few days before the end of classes. The rest of the spring term and final exams were canceled; graduation went on as planned nearly three weeks later with the scent of charred wood still in the air.
Salvage operations and cleanup took weeks, and college officials began examining how well they had prepared for such an emergency.
The evacuation of dormitories went smoothly, Miss Cormier said, but the college's switchboard "went crazy," prompting an ongoing review and revamping of the campus communications plan.
Mr. Bratcher said the immediate goal was to get the campus in good enough shape to open in time for the fall semester. That goal was met.
Today, a chain-link fence encircles the Ruffner and Grainger site. People still leave flowers and other items on the fence in remembrance.
In their place will rise new buildings that will be "historically accurate" outside and modern inside, Mr. Bratcher said. College officials are especially determined to replicate the Rotunda, the gold-domed building considered the heart of Longwood.
Meanwhile, the business of education continues at the state-supported college about 60 miles west of Richmond.
"When I think about what we've been through, it's remarkable that we're all able to do our regular good job," Mr. Amoss said.


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