Lightning may be to blame for an early morning fire Wednesday that destroyed the Kenneth M. Trammell Baptist Student Center at Cumberland University.
There were two students asleep upstairs when they heard a smoke alarm sometime between 5:30-5:45 a.m., said Lebanon Fire Chief Chris Dowell. The students, one from the Watertown area and the other believed to be from North Georgia, escaped unharmed but lost all their possessions.
Dowell said the first firefighters on the scene saw smoke coming from the South Hatton side of the structure - the building is on the corner of South Hatton and West Spring Street - and went inside and began trying to push the fire out the same side as they are trained to do.
Firefighters also opened a door upstairs to fight the blaze, but the fire flashed "and blew them back down the stairs," Dowell said. No one was injured, he added, but "it sort of startled them a little bit."
The Baptist Student Center was located in an older home that had more than one ceiling added to it through the years with changes made to the interior over time as well. "It was cut up pretty good," the fire chief said, adding he talked with Jerry Franklin who told him he remembered playing inside the house in the 1940s.
Phil Carter, executive director of communications at Cumberland University, said "The house, which is where the Baptist Student Center is located, is not owned by the university and is located just off campus."
The flames, Dowell explained, traveled through the rafters and essentially overwhelmed firefighters when it flashed. They then determined to fight the fire defensively from outside before trying again to battle it inside.
Older houses were built differently, Dowell said, and due to the age of this structure "It just made it difficult to fight."
"We think lightning hit it and sat there and smoldered, probably in the wall. It can sit there and smolder before it comes out into flames," he noted.
As for the two students inside the facility, Dowell said it probably took them a second to realize their quarters had already filled up with smoke. Smoke tends to travel and build, he said, adding "they were just lucky."
The fire chief added that efforts were under way by Cumberland officials and some churches to help the students replace the clothing and other items they lost as a result of the blaze.
"CU staff are working to provide the students that were affected temporary housing, food and other accommodations to get them back on their feet. I also understand that several other community organizations and churches are offering their assistance as well," Carter said, adding that monetary gifts can be made through the Wilson County Baptist Association office at 200 East Gay Street, Lebanon, or call 615-444-8820. "Anyone who would like to contribute material needs (clothing, bedding, toiletries) can drop off these objects in the Office of Residence Life in Labry Hall on campus."
"The structure is a total loss. The kids lost everything, but they're in good hands."
"We are thankful the students were not harmed. Buildings can always be replaced, but not lives," Carter said. "The Lebanon Fire Department and the CU Security team did an excellent job of getting the situation under control quickly. We are grateful for their services."
Dowell said 33 Lebanon firefighters responded to the scene and five additional ones were called in to ride the department's reserve engine in case it was needed for another call.
Firefighters did in fact respond to another fire Wednesday on Draper Lane, just outside the city limits. Wilson County Emergency Management Agency responded, and LFD assisted with a water problem in the area.
Firefighters on that particular shift spent some 7-8 hours of that time on the scene of the fires, the chief added.
In addition to LFD, WEMA also assisted in fighting the fire at the Baptist Student Union, including Keith Taylor, the training officer, Shift Commander Steve Fox and Lebanon Public Safety Coordinator Mike Justice.
Wilson County IAFF Rehab Unit, a van that carries drinks such as Gatorade and food and other items that are needed when firefighters are on the scene for an extended time, also responded.
"Big kudos to them. I don't know what we would have done without them," Dowell said, adding that Chick-fil-A and Hardee's also donated food items to those on the scene as well. "Local folks around here tend to take care of others in a time of need."
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