Smoke visible from Prospect Avenue swirled from the Frist Campus Center as a fire blazed through the roof last night. At least 100 stunned onlookers gazed at the construction site of the building scheduled to open next fall, as the fire burned for more than 30 minutes despite the efforts of Princeton firefighters.
No one was harmed, according to Deputy Fire Chief Neil Hunter.
After an initial inspection, officials from the construction company heading up the Frist renovations were unable to determine the cause of the fire and the extent of the damage to the building, but firemen speculated that the force of the water hitting the structure may have had adverse effects on the structure.
"Basically the damage was contained to the roof and whatever water damage done to the sheetrock," Deputy Fire Chief Ken Rendall said, referring to material used in the construction of the walls.
Firefighters were dispatched at 8:41 p.m. after the fire was reported by student center manager Tim Szostek '02, who spotted flames while walking to his dorm. Within minutes the firemen arrived at the site in three trucks, and allowed Szostek to lead them through the building.
"I was worried, so I grabbed the first firefighter I saw and insisted I be let in," Szostek said, explaining that he had been given a tour of the building by the construction company three weeks earlier. He used this knowledge to direct firefighters — who were unfamiliar with the building's layout — to stairwells and exits.
"It was a maze in there," said Deputy Fire Chief Hunter, who was the first firefighter on the scene. "The building was under construction and it's all steel."
In addition, the fire department's efforts were hindered by fences and material surrounding the construction site, which obstructed access and prevented trucks from approaching the building. These difficulties were exacerbated by problems with the water system.
"When we got here, there was no place to park. It was a mess," said a firefighter at the scene, who asked to remain anonymous. "We're just lucky that we had good drivers to get in there."
Observers said the firefighters' first attempt to quench the flames may have been hampered by poor water pressure.
Hunter, however, denied that anything went wrong.
"There were no problems," Hunter said. "We just had to boost the water up a little bit because [the building] is so high and so far out."
Once firefighters put out the flames, they began removing burnt roofing material and throwing it to the ground below to prevent the fire from restarting.