The story of how nine people lost their lives in a deadly 1967 fire at Cornell University, and how authorities still don’t know what happened.
It’s about 4 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, April 5, and Diego Bernadete is having trouble writing a paper for Allan Bloom’s Government 462 class. He’s writing on Polus, a character in Plato’s Gorgias. Open in front of him is a translation by Benjamin Jowett in a two-volume set from the Random House Modern Library that he had brought with him to college from his father’s library. For some reason, at one point, Diego opens his door.
“I open the door and billowing down the corridor there was a fire,” which mainly consists of a thick, black smoke.
Diego reacts quickly like he’s been training for this — though the residents never had a fire drill in the building — he immediately begins yelling “FIIIIIRE, FIIIIIRE, FIIIIIIIRE.”
When he imitates the yelling now, his voice pronounces the middle of the word with an ah vowel sound, highlighting his Brooklyn roots.
Diego runs up and down the hallways of the first floor of the 3-story residential club, where 68 Cornell University students and three faculty members lived. The building largely houses members of the first class of the Cornell University 6-year-Ph.D. program. The cohort of “Phuds” as they were known on campus, consists of 50 high-achieving high school students who were selected to go from college freshman to having their Ph.D. in six years.
These students studied astrophysics, math, literature and a number of other fields. They lived, studied, and ate all of their meals within the residential club. Some of the residents said this isolated the Phuds from the rest of campus.
The Cornell Heights Residential Club is about a mile from the center of campus. The original owner and builder, Robert Colbert, said the residential club was the “safest and most fireproof building” in Tompkins County. Fire investigators described the building as “fire resistive” the main residential section was built of an entirely brick exterior and precast concrete construction. An article in the Cornell Daily Sun later called the building “The Titanic.”
As Diego continues to run up and down the halls acting as a human fire alarm, students begin to awaken and come into the hallway. For some, this decision would be fatal.
“Those that came out of their rooms, they died. If they stayed in their rooms, they lived,” said Harlin McEwen, the lead investigator of the fire for the Cayuga Heights Police Department.
Margaret Ferguson and Marguerite Waller, known as Margie and Margie or the two Margie’s, are asleep in Room 19 of the residential club. They are down the hall from Diego, when they are awoken by screams and shouts from fellow students — Diego is likely one of those shouts.
After opening the door and seeing the oily black smoke in the hallway, they quickly shut the door. Margie F systematically and calmly begins to devise how to get out of the room. They stuff towels and washcloths under the door to keep the smoke out. The lights go out. Margie W is unable to move or do anything due to the shock, but she is able to think and speak. She turns to Margie F and says, “Margie, we have to remove the screen.”
The window in the two Margies’ room cranked open and had a screen on it. Margie F pushes out the screen, but jumping out isn’t an option. The residential club is on a slant and therefore their first-floor window is almost two stories high.
Both Margie’s begin to tie their sheets together in order to climb out the window. At some point, two other female classmates and one of the faculty members, Adrian Tinsley, come into the Margies’ room. All five of the women exit the room one by one by climbing down the sheets and jumping into the hilly, grassy area that surrounds the building.
Both Margie’s remain friends today, 50 years later. They had bonded quickly when they first arrived to Cornell in 1966, both hailing from the midwest, Margie W from Indiana and Margie F from Ohio. Both were only 17 when they got to Cornell. Neither would finish their Ph.D. at Cornell, instead leaving for Yale University, where they remained roommates.
For Margie F, the fire led to intense bouts of depression that she attributes to experiencing death up-close before many of her peers. She says news of other dormitory fires can cause her to have inconsolable grief. She has undergone psychotherapy, due to what she calls “intangible guilt.”
Howie Bursen is asleep in the basement level of the residential club across from his roommate Joe Savago when the two begin to hear yelling.
They first think the yells are from neighboring kids playing in the street. They quickly realize that the banging on doors and yelling is of a dire nature. Joe looks at Howie and utters one trite phrase.
Joe goes to the door, sees the same black, oily smoke filling the hallways, and quickly shuts it. Joe hurries to their basement window and pushes out the screen. Being on the basement floor, Joe is able to simply climb to safety. Howie takes his time behind Savago, he dresses in a t-shirt, jeans and boots before going over to the door. He opens the door, feels the intense heat and sees the black, oily smoke, which is unsurprising, as the fire started in the common room just down the hall in the basement. After closes the door, the lights go out and the severity of the situation quickly registers with Howie.
“I was coughing and I realized it was time to get the hell out of there.”
So Howie grabs his banjo and climbs to safety.
Howie then is standing in the rain with a group of students who had escaped the residential club. The students are joking around and aren’t taking the situation too seriously.
“Then Dean [Stephen] Parrish came up to us … and he said, ‘Can anyone identify a female student wearing such and such a ring?’ At that point, of course, we realized something really terrible had happened and our moods quickly changed.”
Howie and a fellow classmate run around the back of the building and see multiple students hanging out their windows calling for help. Howie remembers a ladder that he had seen on the side of the building a few days before. He grabs the ladder and brings it to the window of Johanna Christina Wallden, a non-Phud graduate student from Helsinki, Finland. Johanna directs Howie to the window of a more hysterical female student a few windows away from them.
“I made a fateful error there, which has been a burden for me ever since. Instead of saying ‘No, you climb down the ladder, get out of there right now.’ I didn’t do that.” Howie listens to Johanna, and helps the more frantic student down from her window.
Johanna Christina Wallden would die in her room of asphyxiation from the toxic smoke that was slowly filling the building. She was 25.
“I carry that burden with me, rationally I know I didn’t do something evil, I just feel like I could have saved her life.”
Another resident of the basement is Phud Loren Cobb. Loren is one of the last people in the basement lounge hours before the fire starts. Loren and fellow Phud Isabel Einstein spoke until about 1 a.m. the day of the fire about their future.
“I was going to stay in school through a PhD, Isabel had a whole lot of doubts.”
Einstein, smoking a cigarette, talks about immigrating to Israel and her general displeasure with the program, Cornell and her progress in school. Loren is focused on completing his Ph.D. at the university and staying in academia.
A few hours later Loren wakes at 4:30 a.m., his customary time. The air in his room is still, though it smells funny. As Loren gets all the way out of bed, he hears the fire.
“It’s a hell of sound, well it was, a little bit like a wood fire, but with a wood fire, you get a snap, crackle pop. With this fire you heard sort of a rumbling, it was highly unnatural.”
Loren opens his door to find the same disturbance others in the residential club found earlier.
“The hallway was absolutely black from ceiling to floor, with a stationary mass of really evil, greasy, black smoke.”
Loren closes his door and goes to his window. With horizontal levers on the window and an opening into a basement well, it would be nearly impossible to get out through it. Sufficiently alarmed, Loren shakes his roommate David Grunberg awake.
Then, Loren opens his door and tells David to follow him. He places his hand over his mouth and plunges into darkness.
With his hand on the wall, Loren runs down the hallway searching for the exit at the end of the basement corridor. Soon enough, Loren rams into the crash bar of the exit, the door pops open and Loren falls out. He then yells into the corridor for people to come out.
As the other residents of the basement begin to pour out the exit, David isn’t among them. He had not followed closely behind Loren, as he had been told to do. A couple of minutes pass and Loren begins to become worried.
Then, David emerges from the exit, safe.
Once Loren believes everyone is out of the basement he goes around the side of the building to look into his room.
“30-foot flames were coming out my window.”
Loren then goes to the front of the building, where he hears screams coming from first-floor windows. The windows were close enough to the ground that Loren was able to walk up to the window of Phud Anne Agranoff and have her step on his shoulders to safety.
Loren then hears someone yell, “What about the cook?”
The residential club houses a cook, a woman in her mid-sixties.
“I thought ‘Oh my god she’s in trouble’”
Loren quickly ran to the back of the building and sees the cook gesticulating in her room. Loren remembers that a nearby fraternity house had a ladder and ran through the woods with a couple of residential club members to the house. A group of fraternity members return with Loren and a ladder. One of the members of the fraternity, who Loren “thought was huge” places the ladder against the roof of the kitchen, where the cook was living above, climbs up the ladder, snatches her from her room, swings her over his shoulder and carries her down the ladder to safety. Loren remains impressed to this day by the act.
“I couldn’t have done that.”
Loren’s mind then turns to the room of his best friend Peter Cooch. Peter lives on the other wing of the first floor, which is on slanted ground that made it closer to two stories high. Peter’s roommate William Soule was able to exit the residential club through the front door. When he left the room, Peter was putting on his shoes.
After operating the police siren for a couple of minutes at a firefighters request, Loren begins moving towards the front door, trying to get into the residential club to look for Cooch. He is stopped by firefighters and fellow students alike.
“It was terrible, it was a confirmation that I was absolutely helpless.”
Dean Parrish then arrives at the scene and needs someone to create a list of who is missing from the residential club. This is something Loren could help with. Loren has a near photographic memory and had recently mapped out the entire residential club for a sociology project. He rattles off every person who lived in the residential club, and which room they live in. Peter was noticeably one of the missing people.
Peter and Loren attended high school together, George School, a Quaker school in Newtown, Pennsylvania. Loren, who would go on to be a widely successful sociologist and mathematician, said Cooch could do “just about anything better than me.”
After helping Parrish list the missing people, Loren and most of the rest of the remaining residents of the residential club are taken over to the Pi Beta Phi sorority house. They are given pillows, blankets and felt, at least temporarily, safe.
At about 5:30 a.m. Philip Lavori, another Phud who graduated from the George School, burst into the sorority.
“Eyes wild, hair wild, he told us he had just identified Peter Cooch’s body.”
In the hours and day that followed, the university mobilized itself and found temporary housing for the survivors of the fire. Loren took a shower that night, trying to get the smell of the fire off his body, finding that shampoo and hot water weren’t enough.
“It took 3 showers.”
The fire that killed Wallden, Cooch and seven others had a couple of distinctive qualities to it. The first was the smoke that emitted from it. The fire originated in the basement lounge of the residential club, where Phuds often congregated. The fire lit two couches made of naugahyde, an American brand of plastic leather, which burned to a crisp. When naugahyde burns, it burns a thick oily, black smoke that smells and is toxic. All nine of the fire’s fatalities inhaled this toxic smoke.
How did that smoke fill the rest of the residential club so quickly, and kill four people on the second floor of the building?
Two doors, known as fire doors, were propped open. These basement doors led to the stairs to the floors where most of the students lived. The west staircase opened directly into the basement lounge where the fire started. The National Fire Protection Agency would state there was an absence of properly installed fire doors in its analysis of the scene shortly after the fire.
Perhaps, most consequential in the fire was the absence of sprinklers in the residential club. In March 1966, the installation of a partial sprinkler system had been approved. The construction of the sprinklers was being held up by a strike at the manufacturer’s plant.
The areas to be protected by the sprinklers were the basement, two stairways and entrance foyer — all areas hit hardest by the fire.
The construction of the sprinklers was set to resume April 5, the day of the fire.
NFPA investigator Robert Gaudet arrived on the scene within two days of the fire and was tasked with examining the building and how the fire’s severity could have been prevented. While Gaudet wouldn’t say a sprinkler system would’ve prevented the fire, he did point to its track record.
“All evidence indicates that fully sprinklered buildings and detection systems have prevented loss of life and injury, but this building didn’t have it.”
John Alban Finch is one the faculty advisors at the residential club and works as an assistant professor of English at Cornell. John calls the Safety Division of Cornell at 4:08 a.m. that sets off an alarm at the Cayuga Heights Fire Department at 4:11 a.m.
After alerting the authorities, John runs to safety from his room at the end of the first-floor corridor out the front door of the residential club. Most people would have been content escaping the tragic fire.
John runs back into the fire and attempts to rouse the students that were still in their rooms. At least 4 survivors credit their survival to John, including Howie.
John Alban Finch succumbed to the smoke in the foyer that he had escaped through minutes before. He was 38.
Two other students would die in the same foyer, all three of them less than 15 feet from the front door.
Later on, Margie F would identify John’s body for the police.
“I’ve had nightmares about that off and on for the next 50 years.”
As the firefighters put out the basement fire and the toxic smoke was ventilated, a number of officials prepared to enter the residential club and survey the damage. One of those officials was Cayuga Heights Police Chief Jack McGraw.
Hours earlier, McGraw had been jolted out of bed by a call telling him of the fire. When he got to the scene of the fire, McGraw is given one initial job.
“Once I got there, the first thing that came out at me was ‘Call the coroner.’”
Then he initiates the call to the coroner to come to what was still an active fire scene. The coroner — Dr. Ralph Low — and McGraw wait for the dark, sable fumes to dissipate from the residential club. Once firefighters deem it safe to enter, McGraw and Low are the first people to access the residential club after the smoke had cleared.
“We entered the building and we went from body to body to body to body and tagged them … We didn’t know their names.”
Once McGraw finishes working with the coroner to tag each of the nine bodies inside the building, he meets up with McEwen, a Cayuga Heights patrol officer. The two of them decide McEwen would lead the department’s investigation into the fire, while McGraw would keep running the department and be a liaison to the press. Two investigators from the New York State Police would assist in the investigation, but McEwen is the fire’s primary investigator.
The next few days are muddled in the memories of the Phuds. They spread out across the Cornell campus as the university scrambled to find housing for all of them.
Some of the Phuds would talk to mental health personnel affiliated with the college, Margie W calls them not very well trained. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder would not become officially recognized by the American Psychiatric Association until 1980.
Some of the students talked to the press. Every local paper was covering the fire, but so was the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times and reporters from the nightly news.
The Cornell Daily Sun ran a special 2-page edition covering the fire, with the headline “Nine Perish in Morning Fire at Cornell Residential Club” emboldened on the front page. Just two days later, the Sun ran an above the masthead story headlined: “Confusion Marks Res Club Fire Inquiry.”
No matter what else each Phud can remember, within a few days every single resident of the Cornell Heights Residential Club was interviewed by the police.
Seven weeks after the fire, the Phuds had all spread out to different dorms and houses on Cornell’s East Hill. Just a mile from the residential club, was the Watermargin House where three Phuds had moved.
On May 23, between 4 and 5 a.m., a fire broke out in the basement level of the Watermargin House. No one was injured.
Eight days later, at approximately 4:50 a.m., a third fire ignited in the bottom floor of a house, where seven of the nine residents were Phuds. The fire spread from the first to the third floor because of a barrier door on the second floor that had been propped open.
After the third fire, the authorities in Ithaca ruled that all three fires were arson. Ithaca Fire Chief Charles Weaver told The New York Times there was too much coincidence for him.
“This coupled with the other two involving the same group of youngsters, is too much coincidence for me to expect.”
At this point, Loren said the Phuds felt like they were under attack. In the week following the third arson, Loren and a group of other Phuds stayed up all night playing Bridge and patrolling the Telluride House, a dormitory at the university, where some Phuds and other students from the residential club were living. This was also the week before exams at the university.
After exams, most of the Phuds would leave Ithaca for the summer, halting any investigation into potential arson suspects, which Ithaca Police Chief Herbert Van Ostrand had told The New York Times there had been two or three of. June 3 marks the final time a story about the fires would be published in a national news outlet.
On Aug, 17, Van Ostrand would tell the Ithaca Journal that a Canadian lab had found an accelerant used at all three fires. This would seem to be the final evidence needed to confirm all three fires were arson.
Almost 50 years after the fires, the investigation into them has gone dormant. No suspects were ever charged with the crimes, even though Van Ostrand told The New York Times in June that the police had concentrated its investigation to two or three people.
Enter Bill Fogle, a retired engineer who graduated from Cornell in 1970, and had only a vague recollection of the first fire during his freshman year at the university.
In 2013, while doing research for a history project on his fraternity at Cornell, Delta Kappa Epsilon, Fogle stumbled upon reports of the fire. Fogle became intrigued by the fire, particularly its potential origin as an arson.
Fogle immediately began to track down every survivor of the fire he could find, contacted local law enforcement agencies for records on the fire, coroner’s reports on the victims, and any type of police reports he could get his hands on. For almost four years, Fogle has obsessively reached out to a person associated with the fire, requested documents or spoke to a survivor or official a couple times a week. Fogle had worked as an intelligence officer in the Marine Corp for 3 years, which he said helped him conduct his investigation into the fire.
“You learn to look for the things that aren’t there.”
A few months into his investigation, Fogle identified a potential suspect, a student who left Ithaca after the school year and never returned to the program. A student other Phuds had called suspicious. Loren called them “socially maladapt” and said the student “had no idea how to relate to other kids.”
This student was also mentioned in a police report as being reported by Phud David Warren Katz to the police for acting suspiciously. David reported to the police that the student had been acting “strange lately.”
David noted that the student wasn’t in his bed the night of the Watermargin fire, and that he noticed three books of matches and several sheets and rolls of caps in the student’s suitcase.
Katz reported this to the police a day after the fire at the Watermargin house.
On May 26, the student told the police that he would not take a lie detector test, nor would he speak with the police without first talking to counsel.
On May 31, a fire breaks out at a third location, the same house where David and the other student were living, along with five other Phuds.
Fogle tracked down the student early on in his multi-year investigation into the fire. He made contact with the student through a hand-delivered letter from a Phud who knew him in college. Fogle has never told the student that he suspects he set the fire, although the two did exchange a couple of emails.
The student, like a number of other survivors, declined to comment for this story.
During his investigation, Fogle also centered around a perceived lack of cooperation from Cornell University during the fire investigation. This theory centers around a letter, marked “Confidential” from Steven Muller, vice president for Public Affairs to President Perkins. In the letter, Muller is worried about the university’s policy of “official silence.”
“Continued silence by the University is more likely than not to be interpreted as an implicit admission of guilt and negligence.”
Muller worries that “students and others” will pursue the university with a “vengeance.”
“They will equate silence not only with guilt but with the intention to conceal.”
Muller’s letter paints the picture of a university that was uncooperative with the press, and as Fogle believes, with the official investigation into the fire.
Fogle received some pushback in his investigation. First in the form of failed contacts, survivors and officials simply refusing to respond to comprehensive letters. The next was in failed Freedom of Information Act requests. Fogle estimates of the nearly 20 federal FOIA and New York FOIL requests he made, only one returned any substantial or relevant information.
There have also been individuals who want Fogle to stop his investigation completely. One of those people is McEwen, the Cayuga Heights patrolman who led the investigation into the fire.
Initially, McEwen was willing to talk to Fogle. Speaking with him at length about the fire, the investigation and the fact that McEwen was a volunteer firefighter in Cayuga Heights and drove a truck at the April 5 fire.
About a week later, McEwen called Fogle and his tone had changed. Fogle said McEwen repeated one phrase.
“He told me he didn’t want me ‘to go down the rabbit hole’ and he repeated the expression two to three times.”
McEwen is a tall man, with round glasses and a receding hairline at 80 years old. He was a career law enforcement agent, successfully climbing the ladder from patrolman in Cayuga Heights to police chief to deputy commissioner in the New York State Police to Ithaca police chief to deputy assistant director in the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
McEwen still resides in Northeast Ithaca, just outside of Cayuga Heights. His basement office is covered wall to wall in awards for his service in law enforcement. He records all interviews he takes part in whether with Fogle or with reporters.
McEwen largely talks like a cop, careful with his words, and mainly refusing to talk about the first fire because it’s still an open investigation. But, there is one point about the fire that he hammers home multiple times in an interview.
“There is no evidence to this day that any arson occurred there.”
What about the Canadian chemist, who Chief Van Ostrand said found an accelerant at the scene?
However, McEwen verified that accelerants were found at the two latter fires, confirming that they were both arson.
McEwen’s claim of a lack of physical evidence directly contradicts reports made by Van Ostrand in the Ithaca Journal in 1967.
Nearly a year later, the fire is again mentioned in the local press when the father of Jeffrey W. Smith Jr., a Phud who died in the fire, files a $1.75 million negligence suit against Cornell University on March 14, 1968.
The suit would not go to court until Dec. 11 1972. Only two witnesses would be called to the stand: Jeffrey W. Smith Sr. and his and his wife’s psychiatrist Dr. Raymond Hack.
Dr. Hack would testify to treating Margaret Smith, Jeffrey Jr.’s mother, for the first time April 26, 1967, three weeks after the fire. Dr. Hack diagnosed Margaret Smith as severely neurotic depressive. She was prescribed antidepressants, and treated through a short series of four electro-shock treatments administered by Dr. Hack. Over a little more than two and half years, Dr. Hack estimated he saw Margaret 70 times.
“For the greater part of the period, she was almost completely incapacitated.”
On Oct. 12 1969, Margaret died from an overdose of barbiturates. Dr. Hack would testify that the death of Jeffrey Jr. was the “proximate cause” of her illness.
Dr. Hack would also testify about his treatment of Jeffrey Sr. Jeffrey Sr. was suffering from severe neurotic depression, and was also diagnosed on April 26, 1967. Dr. Hack testified that Jeffrey Sr. was incapable of performing his work as an accountant by the time Dr. Hack first saw him and would be unable to support himself.
“His energy is markedly reduced. He is without goals, beyond merely sustaining himself from day to day. His appearance is often relatively unkempt … He requires motivation to make him and to diminish any sort of emotion which might also produce a self-destructive suicide.”
Dr. Hack would testify that Jeffrey Jr.’s death was also the “proximate cause” of Jeffrey Sr.’s depression. Dr. Hack had seen Jeffrey Sr. 120 times from April 26 1967 to the day he testified in 1972.
On Jan. 13, 1973, after settling the case before going to a jury, Cornell University was ruled negligent by the United States Northern District Court of New York. Jeffrey Sr. was awarded $150,000 or more than $852,000 today.
Jeffrey Sr’s lawsuit is the only known lawsuit filed against the college for the fire.
While many survivors of the fire chose not to sue, many of them are still affected by the tragedy.
Loren is affected simply by talking about the tragedy.
“I get the shakes every time I talk about this.”
He also said the fire had a profound impact on all of the residents of the Res Club.
“100 percent of us were traumatized.”
For Margie F, to this day when she gets together with Margie W and Howie, the fire remains prevalent in their conversations.
“It’s as if you’re addicted when you’re with someone who went through that with you because you can’t really talk about it with other people.”
“We’re just trying to figure out what happened.”
To contact Max Denning about republishing the story or with other questions, feel free to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org