By Alex Brown, Editor-in-Chief
A small fire created a big mess at the Chi Omega house early April 16, drawing units from the Jackson Fire Department and more than a few onlookers.
The blaze was limited to a small space within a storage closet and quickly extinguished by the house’s automated sprinkler system. However, the house did sustain water damage because the sprinklers ran for nearly half an hour before the fire department arrived to shut them off.
Emergency responders and Chi Omega members said they believe the fire started when materials used to create the fraternity’s Variety Show set — including stain-soaked sponges — were sparked by an electronic device charging nearby and ignited some paper lying on the floor beneath. The sprinklers extinguished the fire before it spread to lighter fluid and spray paint also stored in the closet.
Karisa Beougher, sophomore social work major and Chi Omega member, was the first on the scene. She was in the vicinity of the house and heard its external alarm sounding at 12:40 a.m.
“I went over and put in the code and opened the door,” Beougher said. “All the smoke came and pushed me back a little bit. I called 911 and told them what was going on, and they came.”
She tried to enter the house but thought better of it when she saw two inches of standing water and moving electrical circuits.
Tom Irwin, a security supervisor with Safety and Security, scoured the house soon after to make sure no one was inside. Most of the smoke had cleared by that point, but Irwin said the smell still lingered.
The Jackson Fire Department arrived 10 to 15 minutes after the initial call, and five fire engines — as well as the battalion chief’s truck — quickly surrounded the house. Despite the dramatic scene, Capt. Guy Murdaugh said the firefighters’ job was relatively easy.
“The sprinkler system did its job and came on and put the fire out,” Murdaugh said. “We didn’t have to do anything except shut the water off and keep the water damage down.”
While only the sprinklers in the closet area activated, the standing water eventually spread through the entire house. Jennifer Bragg, junior exercise science major and Chi Omega president, said her initial look at the damage was disheartening.
“I was surprised that there was so much water,” Bragg said. “It just looked bad. One of my first reactions was, ‘This is going to cost a ton.’”
Bragg said Chi Omega members were at first “shocked and concerned” as they watched the scene, but she was encouraged as they teamed up the following day with other sororities and students to clean up. She said the camaraderie and positive attitudes displayed were a great example of the Union community.
“They came through, and I couldn’t be prouder,” Bragg said. “There were girls there all day in between classes helping out, and everyone had a great attitude about it. … It’s fun to have rivalries between sororities, but they’re going to step up and help out (in need).”
Along with the students’ efforts, Chi Omega hired a cleanup crew to pump the water out, and a representative from the insurance company assessed the damage. Bragg said the extent of the water damage will not be clear until the house completely dries out because it is possible water seeped into the walls and soaked the insulation.
While Chi Omega waits to hear on the condition of the house, its members have not been deterred in their Variety Show efforts. Despite the damage the materials caused, the set itself sustained little damage, and the group is set to perform as planned.