Early in the morning of December 13, 1977, a fire broke out on the fourth floor of Aquinas Hall, a woman’s dormitory at Providence College. Within thirty minutes, ten young women were dead – seven from the smoke and flames and three from jumping to escape the inferno. I was a sophomore at the school at the time and have vivid memories of the aftermath of the fire although I was at home here in Lowell the night it happened.
December 12, 1977 was the start of “reading period”, the time between the end of classes and the start of exams. I thought I’d get more studying done at home so I returned to Lowell for a few days, but my roommates and others remained and related events to me the next day. It snowed that night, the first of the season. The “quad” formed by McDermott, McVinney and Aquinas Halls became the site of a major snow ball fight involving nearly one hundred students. By 2 a.m., everyone was back in their dorm rooms, mostly asleep. The fire broke out shortly after that in a fourth floor room of Aquinas Hall, an older building that consisted of first floor lecture halls and three floors of rooms for woman residents. Although I’ve never seen an official report of the cause of the fire, I’ve been told that someone trying to dry out mittens made wet from the snowball fight left a blow dryer running inside a closet. Whatever the cause of ignition, the fire started in one of the rooms. I believe the three residents of that room all made it out. Not so many of their floor mates. Aquinas Hall was particularly susceptible to fire at that point because of a long tradition of a Christmas dorm decorating contest. The fourth floor was a top contender, having covered every square inch of the walls and ceiling of the hallway with decorations and crepe paper. The decorations provided deadly fuel to the fire, however, because once the flames made it out into the hallway, all the paper turned it into a tunnel of flame.
At about 6 am on the morning of the fire, an early rising relative had caught the news on TV and called my parents to report the fire and ask if they’d heard from me. Everyone was pleased I was safely in the adjoining room. Later that morning I drove back to the school. There was a memorial mass held that day in the gymnasium. It was a reminder of the importance of religion in getting through tragedy. Exams were postponed until after the Christmas break and everyone left for home. When we returned, a very intense fire safety program was implemented and strictly enforced, something that is very important to me even today. Six weeks later, four feet of snow descended on us as we endured the Blizzard of 78. Three years ago, on the 30th anniversary of the fire, I traveled back to the school for a memorial mass that included the dedication of an alcove of the newly constructed chapel that memorialized the ten fallen students. Fire can strike so, so fast. There’s no substitute for prudence and preparedness.