April 5, 1967–Cornell Fire

28 Jul

Hurlburt house


Another memory of my father–He knew the horror of fire because of his involvement in the local volunteer fire department. In the early morning of April 5, 1967, he was summoned by phone to a fire at the Residential Building at Cornell, where eight students and one professor met their deaths. Some of those who died were part of a six-year PhD program, wherein the brilliant participants were expected to obtain an undergraduate degree, a Master’s, and a PhD in six years.  Others were simply Cornell students who had chosen the building as their residence.  As part of this plan both sexes lived together in one building–the idea was that the sense of community would help them in their efforts. This was during the sixties and everyone was into group-think and consciousness raising. It probably made sense to Cornell to have all these young intellectuals together. Too bad they didn’t choose a building with the care they took to select the students.

The fire was later proved to be the result of arson, but the police were never able to pin the crime on one person or persons, not that they didn‘t have their ideas. My father was haunted by the event, but said he was fortunate in that he didn’t have to carry the bodies out of the building. He was gratefully assigned to the pump outside.

There were definitely heroes in this tragedy. Dr. Humphrey, a well-known local doctor, lived on the street closest to the fire. He heard the fire truck and the yelling. He rushed over and climbed a ladder to rescue a young woman. He accompanied her in the ambulance and then collapsed himself, probably from smoke inhalation. He is now 97 and lives at Kendal. As Krishna Ramanujan explains in the enclosed article on the April 4, 2007 memorial, the professor, Dr. Finch, who died, did so because he went back into the burning building to save more people. The toxic fumes were apparently too strong for him.

Since they were supposed to be so much smarter than everyone else, I’ve often wondered what the students might have accomplished if they had lived. How were the parents of the victims able to survive the tragedy? I also wonder if the arsonist has ever had any regrets. Most of us would be incapable of setting a fire in a building full of people. What kind of flaw or combination of chemicals in a brain otherwise so perfect could allow someone to commit such a hideous crime?

During the investigation the police and the fire chief tried to reconstruct conversations that had occurred previous to the fire and to figure out where each person was prior to it.  I recall that an Asian woman had stayed up late studying.  They thought she might never have woken up once she went to sleep because of the toxicity of the fumes.  The investigation left those in charge with the notion that a fire had purposely been set in a piece of furniture with a naugahyde or naugahyde-like cover that contributed to the deadliness of the smoke.  My father was told that the investigators were convinced enough of the individual’s culpability that every time the suspect moved the previous fire chief would have to notify the new one (this included when the person moved away from Ithaca).  They felt that they simply didn’t have enough evidence to prosecute the case, but maybe they could help prevent other fires.  Their suspect was present at the scene of at least one other fire in Ithaca’s Collegetown.

online Article from Cornell Chronicle (information on their advisor)


3 Responses to “April 5, 1967–Cornell Fire”

  1. Reblogged this on ithacalansing and commented:

    I am reblogging this post because of the recent interest in pursuing a new investigation.

  2. Martha Wallen November 8, 2014 at 10:47 pm #

    It was an awful thing to happen, and it’s close to home for you because of your father. I wonder if they have some new information. Maybe the people who did it aren’t even alive anymore.

  3. I was in junior high in 1967, and these students were at Cornell, so they would probably still be around. (older baby boom) I also wonder if they have new information.

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