In the Fire of Spring
Students may have felt a premonition of disaster one March day in 1970 – final exams for the winter quarter had just begun. But by mid-morning on Tuesday the 17th, they had forgotten all about finals. That day a smoldering fire ate away at Kerrwood Hall, the heart of the Westmont campus.
Several people noticed unusual heat and a smokey smell in the building when they arrived for work, but they didn’t worry. The furnace had been acting up, and a crew was trying to repair it. Everyone just stayed in their offices and kept on with their tasks. President John Snyder met with the administrative committee in his office as scheduled.
Suddenly, the ceiling in the president’s office cracked, and smoke drifted into the room. Forgetting their agenda, the people in the meeting rushed out into the hall to evacuate the building.
Doris Roberts Fuller ’73 was standing at the switchboard (then tucked under the staircase) when she noticed smoke floating out of the heating vent. “Dean Byron came charging down the stairs, yelling, ‘The building is on fire. Get out!’”
The people in Kerrwood quickly evacuated. But they began to think about all the documents and furnishings – transcripts, financial records, paintings, and manuscripts – that were irreplaceable. They surged back into the building and began to empty it.
Students immediately carried the portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Kerr to safety. “Those portraits were my first thought when the fire was announced,” recalled Professor Lyle Hillegas. “[They] were the first objects removed from the building, although it seemed then that removal was not really necessary.”
Staff in the development office (then adjacent to the president’s office) worked quickly with students to remove files and desks. They got nearly everything before the ceiling collapsed, just missing them.
During the morning, a continuous caravan of furniture traveled outside to the lawns surrounding Kerrwood. Men covered their faces with wet cloths before dashing into the building to rescue valuable documents like transcripts and financial records. To get to offices upstairs, students scaled ladders. Rather than passing buckets of water toward the fire, lines of women passed files, books, and personal belongings away from it.
Groups of students stood below the windows with sheets to catch objects – especially books – thrown from the building. According to Doris Fuller, “The scene was incredibly surreal. File cabinets, paintings, and desks piled up outside. Students brought out as much as they could.”
Meanwhile, smoke gushed from the roof while firefighters attacked the elusive blaze. The fire started with a short circuit in a hidden electrical cable, and it had been burning in the areas between the walls and floors and ceilings for several hours before anyone detected it. Firefighters faced a difficult task – the flames had already done much damage, and they were inaccessible. To put out the fire, the men had to cut their way to it. “We never saw the building engulfed in flames,” remembers Doris Fuller. “But we could see that it was dying before our eyes.”
The firefighters had so many problems extinguishing the blaze, they had no time to salvage any of the furnishings. In a letter to college officials after the fire, the Montecito fire chief wrote, “All of the furnishings, equipment, and records saved were carried out by the faculty and students, and I feel some risked their lives in doing this.”
Professor Robert Gundry had been getting the manuscript of his book, Survey of the New Testament, ready to send to the publisher. It was lying in piles around the perimeter of this office floor. But when he found out that Kerrwood was on fire, his first thought was for his Greek Bible. “By the time I reached Kerrwood, the smoke had already filled the upstairs. I really needed my Greek New Testament because it had years of notes in it. So I took a deep breath, and raced upstairs to get it. Then some students put up a ladder to my office to rescue my book. They had to grope around the floor for papers – the smoke was so thick, they couldn’t see. Amazingly, they found all the stacks, and didn’t miss a single sheet of paper. I didn’t lose one page.”
Doris Fuller will never forget watching John Eichorn save this manuscript. “He would stick his head out of the window, take a big gulp of air, run inside, grab a stack of papers, and throw them out the window. Then he’d take another breath, and go back for more. Sheaves of paper floated through the air while Dr. Gundry rushed back and forth, collecting them.”
News of the fire spread to the local media. One radio station reported that students were looting the building as it went up in flames. Just 20 days earlier, college students at the University of California at Santa Barbara had burned down the Bank of America in Isla Vista. But the media soon got the story straight, and they praised Westmont students for their heroism. Both fire officials and reporters contrasted the actions of students at Westmont with the turmoil at UCSB.
At first, President Snyder thought the building was a total loss. But with the insurance payment and gifts from friends, the College was able to restore Kerrwood. The configuration of some of the rooms changed, as did the location of the switchboard. Some alterations were welcome. “At least the fire destroyed that awful painting of the Grand Canyon that used to hang over the stairs,” remarked Doris Fuller. “The portraits of the presidents are much better!”
Since students saved almost all the furnishings and important records and no one was hurt, the fire did mostly structural damage. As always, God had His hand on Westmont. Kerrwood survived and remains the center of the campus to this day.