Rebecca Missel and Ryan Gabrielson
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Two-alarm grease fire causes no injuries, keeps public out four hours
When many students and employees heard the fire alarm in the Memorial Student Union yesterday morning, they figured it was just another false alarm.
Then they saw the smoke.
"When you went down the stairs, you saw all the smoke coming from the vents," said Carla McClimon, a business management senior.
When the deep friers at bottom-floor restaurant Louie's Lower Level caught on fire - sending smoke throughout the building - the fire alarms went off.
No one was injured in the two-alarm fire that sent 15 trucks and 40 firefighters to the union and kept several hundred students waiting on the University of Arizona Mall.
In all, between 1,500 to 2,000 people were evacuated when the alarms went off at 8:01 a.m., and the entire union was closed down till 12 p.m.
When the fire began, the restraint's hood system, an overhead fire extinguisher, was supposed to spray a chemical solution and put out the flames. Both Tucson Fire Department and University of Arizona Risk Management officials are unsure of why the link, which in case of fire is supposed to melt and release the flame restraint, didn't melt.
But TFD officials were not surprised that the grease fire began.
"That (the heated grease) can start a fire itself," said Joe Gulotta, Tucson Fire Department captain. "They can just spontaneously combust."
Though the fire cost the restraint several thousand dollars in damages, Gulotta said that the fire could have been a lot worse.
"Many buildings burn down because of fires spreading and the smoke went through the roof, up three floors," he said. "It's a very dangerous situation."
Had the flames caused structural damage, it could have become as high as a four-alarm fire and spread throughout the union, Gulotta said.
Once the fire was put out and the smoke was cleared, state health inspectors were allowed to determine if any food could be kept and if it was safe for people to return.
All food exposed to the smoke was disposed of, and much of the rest was taken to a storage area, said Brian Keintz, assistant director of the Arizona Student Unions.
Even though the smoke was cleared, the public was not permitted to enter the union until the fire alarm was operational. During the fire, some of the alarm's wires were damaged, leaving the union without warning if another fire started.
"The first-floor system is inoperable because of this fire," said Mike Smith, UAPD public information officer at 9:30 a.m. yesterday. "We don't want to put anyone at risk."
At about 12 p.m., the alarms were turned on and the police lines were removed from all areas except those around Louie's Lower Level.
"They're not going to be frying things for a couple of months," said Steve Holland, director of UA Risk Management. The entire deep frier was destroyed during the fire, and Holland said he isn't sure if Louie's Lower Level will take any steps to get that part of its operation back on line.
In December, the remaining section of the Memorial Student Union is going to be torn down, and therefore, the rewiring necessary to install a new deep frier would likely be too much trouble to undertake in the existing union.
Today, inspectors from the state's risk management, who provides insurance for the union, will begin an investigation of the fire. For now, employees of Louie's are working with other dining vendors on campus.
"We're just waiting for the insurance to come through," said Rudy Pro, dining services supervisor.