Smoke, but no fire, in Harkness Hall

Fears of a possible fire yesterday at William L. Harkness Hall turned out to be a false alarm, but officials responding to the call said they were truly alarmed by students’ lack of fire safety.

Yale fire marshals and members of the New Haven Fire Department responded to a report of smoke at William L. Harkness Hall on Tuesday morning, which came from a burnt elevator motor inside the building, Yale Police Department Sergeant Steven Woznyk said. Responders expressed concern about the behavior of the students present, who ignored the alarm and in some cases attempted to sneak into the building while firefighters were still determining the extent of the danger.

Students congregate outside of William L. Harkness Hall during a fire scare. The smoke in WLH was caused by a defective elevator motor.
Josh Duboff
Students congregate outside of William L. Harkness Hall during a fire scare. The smoke in WLH was caused by a defective elevator motor.

Around 11:20 a.m., students approaching WLH for classes were asked to stay outside by firemen, who — because the fire alarm had not yet gone off — triggered the alarm and spent the next few minutes evacuating students already inside. While Yale police officers directed traffic, fire trucks parked on the surrounding Wall and College streets as firemen tried to determine the cause of the smoke and inspect each room.

The culprit turned out to be a faulty elevator motor, Yale Deputy Fire Marshal Michael Fox said.

“Sometimes [the motors] get warm and they catch fire,” Fox said. “It’s not a real common occurrence, but it does happen sometimes.”

By noon, firemen had completed their inspection of the building and classes had resumed.

Though officials directed students to remain outside, a few sneaked in through a side door on Wall Street, forcing firemen to periodically shepherd them out throughout the duration of the incident. Fox said such neglect of fire safety among students is regrettably common.

“Unfortunately, it does happen more than it should,” he said. “All through high school and elementary school we were taught that if the fire alarm goes off, get out of the building.”

Phillip Yang ’10, who was in the middle of a “Philosophy of Religion” lecture when firemen began evacuating the building, said students and teachers were apparently oblivious to the threat of a fire.

“It just seemed like kind of a joke,” he said. “There were actual professors who didn’t leave WLH and kept teaching class despite the fact that there were blaring alarms going off.”

Outside WLH, a group of firemen said some students were reluctant to leave when asked to evacuate the building.

“They were still walking back in,” one fireman said.

Another added, “It interrupts your day, it’s a pain, I know, but what do you want me to tell you?”

Fox said officials have not yet determined the exact cause of the motor fire, but the Yale physical plant is currently working with the elevator’s contractor to replace the malfunctioning motor “as soon as possible.”

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