An Ivy League Arson: 50 Years Later

The basement hallway of the residential club near where the fire ignited. Reproduced with permission from NFPA, Copyright © 1967, National Fire Protection Association

“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.”

The back of the residential club days after the fire. Many of the windows have been boarded up. Reproduced with permission from NFPA, Copyright © 1967, National Fire Protection Association

“Oh shit.”

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.

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.”

An outline of a student’s body who died in the fire. Reproduced with permission from NFPA, Copyright © 1967, National Fire Protection Association

“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.

“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.

“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.

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.

“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.

“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.”

Page one of the letter from Steven Muller, vice president for Public Affairs, to President James Perkins. Document from Cornell University Rare and Manuscript Collections.

“They will equate silence not only with guilt but with the intention to conceal.”

Page two of the Muller letter to Perkins. Document from the Cornell University Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections.

“Absolutely false.”

However, McEwen verified that accelerants were found at the two latter fires, confirming that they were both arson.

“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.

“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 maxwdenning@gmail.com

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Max Denning

Max Denning

Independent music A&R and football coach/analyst. Former journalist, still writing about football, music, politics, etc. Twitter: @TheMaxDenning