The time my dorm was on fire

First week of April, 1992.

About five a.m., I woke up to a noise. It sounded like someone’s alarm clock going off. I glanced at my own, as I had a 6 a.m. custodial shift before classes began, and realized it wasn’t my alarm. I glanced at the outlets (a square of four that conducted noise better than a telephone. seriously, we’d have conversations through those outlets) and thought to myself “Who has the alarm that sounds just like the fire bell right…outside…my..door…shit.”

Have I mentioned my penchant for anxiety? Yeah, so one of my biggest fears growing up was the house catching on fire. I couldn’t just lay there and wait it out, so I got up, opened my door, peeked out and saw girls scurrying down the hall. The RA looked at me wide-eyed. “Get out now!”

“Let me get my roommate.” I stated.

Now my roommate didn’t wake up well. Neither did I really, but I was wide awake and not about to leave my friend behind. “Wake up Jen. Come on, wake up. Let’s go.”

She had it in her mind that this must be a fire drill – because that’s the path her brain took. Mine was already at “Towering Inferno”, as we were on the top floor of a five story building. She slid out of her bunk, and fumbled around her desk, because in her mind, as soon as the drill was over, she was going to grab a Mt. Dew. I was in “Let’s get the hell out of here!’, grabbing our robes. She turned, holding a dollar bill up victoriously. I threw her robe onto her face.

The RA came to our doorway. “We have to leave NOW!”

“Okay!” I stated in solidarity. I grabbed Jen by the hand and dragged her out of the room. We followed the RA to the staircase, and one flight down I caught a whiff of smoke. “Why does it smell like the dorm is actually on fire?” I blurted out.

The RA just gave us a look. Jen was now completely wide-eyed awake.

We hurried down the stairs, one of last people out of the dorm. Four hundred college girls stood around the building. Our friend Jenn (seriously, most of my friends are named Jen(n)) spotted us. “Oh thank God!” she said as she hugged us. “Now I have everything important.”

Jenn the friend explained to Jen the roommate and me what was going on. She lived on the ground floor, and also woke up to the fire bell. She got out of bed, and went to grab her shoes that she’d left in the hall next to her door. She bent, picked them up, glanced over and saw black smoke billowing.

“So the dorm is actually on fire?”


As we found out later, the storage area in the laundry room mysteriously caught on fire. No one would call it arson, but the point of origin was definitely suspicious. We also learned that the fire alarm system was ridiculously outdated. The only reason the fire was noticed was that someone on the laundry room hall got up early and saw smoke coming out of there. She woke up the resident director, banged on doors in her hall, and pulled the first alarm bell on the ground floor – which only alerted the ground floor. Each fire bell on each floor had to be individually pulled. Hence the look of sheer panic on the face of the RA when she was telling us to get the heck out of there – the RA’s had to go from floor to floor pulling alarms. There was no all-inclusive fire alarm system. There was the next fall though!

It was April and about 50 degrees, and the resident director realized that we weren’t getting back inside the dorm any time soon, you know, since the laundry room was actually on fire. Some girls crossed campus to get to the other girls dorm, and some walked across to the guys dorm.

There was one window open in all the dorm right above the main entrance. Roommate Jen started shouting to the window. “Hey! Let us in! Our dorm’s on fire!”

A voice answered us. “Yeah right.” he said before shutting the window.

We gaped at the window for a moment. “We know where you live.” Jen muttered at the window.

In their defense, the guys dorm had been having 3 am fire drills for the past week. To the point that if the fire had actually broken out in their dorm, they all would have died in their beds, because everyone ignored the fire alarms after the first three days. But still, there we were, 450 co-eds in various states of undress, begging to be allowed into their dorm, and we were shunned. SHUNNED. I hope you boys still feel the shame of it. Just saying.

Our dorm director got a hold of theirs and we were finally allowed into the dorm, where we all piled into the large common area in the entrance. It was a ridiculous scene, girls squished on couches, laying across the back of couches, sitting on tables, on floors. One girl curled up under a coffee table and went back to sleep. Others got into the line to use the in-dorm phone to call boyfriends and have them bring clothing.

Then one girl came in, all bright and perky, clapping as she sang “Rise and shine and give God the glory glo-”

“Shut. Up.” another girl growled.

Bright and Perky stopped mid-glory and skulked off to the phone.

After a while, I called my boss to let him know I wouldn’t be at work due to dorm fire, then wandered a bit, finding other friends. As I walked barefoot outside, a girl standing with her boyfriend spotted me. “You don’t even have socks?” she asked.


“Here!” Her boyfriend had brought her clothes – sweatpants, sweatshirt, socks. She gave me a pair of tube socks. I was most grateful because cold concrete is cold. I kept those socks and called them my Commemorative Dorm Fire Socks.

Eventually, as the firemen still weren’t leaving the scene, someone in administration talked the cafeteria into opening early for the Victims of the Dorm Fire. There were cries of “Oh thank God, COFFEE!” as we stumbled in. It was weird to walk around there, in robes and pjs and mismatched clothing. One friend (and I’m not kidding, her name was Jen too) stopped to point out her shoes. “This is what happens when you get dressed in the dark!” she laughed, pointing to the two different shoes she was wearing.

Then 7 am finally hit, and the cafeteria officially opened. And I swear, every guy on campus showed up, freshly showered, neatly put together, cologned. We girls, who had been up for two hours and shuffled about campus, looked at them and were a bit ‘pfft”. We had stopped caring about an hour ago. Brad Pitt could have showed up and we’d be a bit “pfft”.

Except one guy. One guy was amazing. As Jen the Roommate and I shuffled from the coffee stand, he saw us. “Look at you two!” he exclaimed with sincerity. “You two look beautiful! These men should take note – if you two can look this beautiful after fleeing a burning building, imagine if you actually tried!”

That remained one of my favorite compliments – we did look fabulous with our unbrushed hair and robes and tube socks from strange guys.

Eventually, we were allowed back in the dorm. The laundry room was a loss, the ground floor rooms were soot coated, and some dormmates had to be relocated. We spent the rest of the semester schlepping laundry over to the guys dorm, where we taught those boys things like “How to fold laundry” and horrified some with unmentionables being lined dry. Okay, so maybe one of my friends (not named Jen(n)) went out of her way to wash and line dry all her best unmentionables, just to freak the guys out. And I totally didn’t help her hang them strategically across the laundry room.

What can I say? It was a small college town, we were broke college students, and we only got one channel on the television. There wasn’t a lot to do.

I did learn though that in case of fire, I could actually remain calm and get myself and those I love the hell out of there. Life lesson achieved! Thanks College!

College me in the actual sweatshirt I wore during the Great Dorm Fire. Which I swiped from Jen the Roommate.
College me in the actual sweatshirt I wore during the Great Dorm Fire. Which I swiped from Jen the Roommate.

This is part of the 31 Days writing challenge…