Bennington College fire considered accidental

Electrical issues suspected; damage put at $250K

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BENNINGTON — A fire that caused about $250,000 worth of damage at the Barn, Bennington College's historic administration building, has been classified as accidental, officials said Wednesday.

An examination revealed two potential electrical causes for the fire: the "general state of wiring" in the building, which was constructed around the turn of the 20th century for agricultural purposes, and the ongoing work on the outside of the building for the past two weeks, including nailing siding and door and window trim, according to a media release from the Vermont Department of Public Safety's Fire & Explosion Investigation Unit.

The fire originated early Tuesday afternoon on the interior of the walls on the east side of the two-story, wood-frame building, and extended through the balloon frame construction and into the attic/crawl space, which was extensively damaged.

Electrical issues had been reported during the day by staff, including flickering lights and a humming or "bee hive-like" sounds coming from the exterior wall, according to investigators Detective Sgt. Steven Otis of the Vermont State Police and Assistant State Fire Marshal Tim Angell of the Division of Fire Safety.

The fire was confined to the Barn. The adjacent Cricket Hill, which houses the admissions office, has been temporarily closed, and seems to have sustained some smoke damage, said Alex Dery Snider, of the college's Communications Office.

In the Barn, the damage appears to be concentrated in the southeast corner of the building, which houses the president's office, the communications office and the bookstore, she said.

The college has not yet determined the extent of losses from the fire, although college officials have confirmed at least some artwork was salvaged from the building. The building was insured, Snider said.

"On the front of the artwork — there was a really big effort," said Isabel Roche, provost and dean of the college. "I think the sense is that most things are out on that front."

The biggest concern, Roche said, was to minimize the situation's impact on teaching and learning. The Barn houses mostly student-centered offices, as it is centrally located, she said.

Snider said the college will probably know more about any losses in the coming days.

Offices and classes have been relocated, with the goal of putting staff in places where their work could continue "as seamlessly as possible," Roche said.

Other faculty have also been supportive, offering to share space, she said. The communications office and the president's office in particular have been relocated to the college's Center for the Advancement of Public Action.

Snider and Roche said they do not anticipate any disruptions to the college's operations.

"[There's a] lot of logistics to manage, but I feel like we think we have a good and solid plan," Roche said.

College officials have to know and understand more about the situation before identifying their next steps, Roche said.

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Members of the college community have reached out offering support since the fire, including Bennington alumni, Snider said.

"People really love Bennington, and love that building," she said. "It's brought a sense of nostalgia."

Many students and alums have had classes in that building, Roche said. The Barn is "very representative of our campus," she said.

"It's been a space that's been important to our campus from the beginning," she said. "It's really important to people."

Roche also praised responding fire departments, calling their efforts a "truly amazing response."

She also thanked the responding personnel in a letter to the editor, sent to the Banner late Tuesday night.

"No faculty, staff or students were hurt and the building was mostly saved, due to the extraordinary work of firefighters," she said in the letter. "You went beyond simply keeping us safe; you moved swiftly to preserve as much of the building as possible, minimizing

the losses to this critically important campus space."

A Bennington faculty member and staff member were also among the responders.

Officials on Wednesday released the name of a firefighter who was injured. Brett Mould, of the Shaftsbury Fire Department, was taken to Southwestern Vermont Medical Center for treatment after being injured pulling a hose off a truck. He was released from the hospital Tuesday and did not suffer serious injury.

Joe Hayes, chief of the Bennington Rural Fire Department, said about 125 firefighters responded to the scene Tuesday, including those from Bennington, Bennington Rural, North Bennington, Shaftsbury, Arlington, Manchester and Pownal, along with North Hoosick, Hoosick Falls, Hoosick, West Hoosick, Pittstown, Melrose, Mountain View, Greenwich, Cambridge, White Creek and Petersburg in New York.

In her letter, Roche states that firefighters from Shushan, New York also responded. Police and rescue personnel, including the Bennington Police Department, also responded.

Staff were alerted to the fire, which started around 1 p.m. Tuesday, by a contractor performing work on the outside of the building, according to the VSP release. Due to the amount of smoke and fire on arrival, additional aid was requested.

Because of responders' efforts, along with Bennington College security, everyone was safely evacuated and extensive damage and spread of the fire was prevented, according to the release.

Campus security confirmed Wednesday morning that no one is being allowed into the Barn, which was surrounded by yellow caution tape.

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.


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