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January 18, 2013

SUNY Oneonta seeking home for students after fire

By Denise Richardson
The Daily Star

---- — SUNY Oneonta officials worked Thursday on short- and long-term accommodations for 175 residents of Matteson Hall displaced by a fire the previous day that officials ruled was electrical and accidental in origin.

Eighteen students stayed Wednesday night in a shelter set up in the college’s Chase Gymnasium, officials at the State University College at Oneonta said, but plans were developing Thursday to close the gym and lodge students at the Holiday Inn in Oneonta.

Beginning Thursday night, a SUNY Oneonta media release said, the college will pay for displaced students to stay at the hotel, and Oneonta Public Transport agreed to extend a bus route to provide free transportation between the hotel and campus. The college, which has set up a fund to help victims of the fire, said 174 students lived in the hall with one residence director, a figure revised from 177 residents stated previously.

“We’re thankful that no one was injured by yesterday’s fire at Matteson Hall,” SUNY Oneonta President Nancy Kleniewski said in a statement to the campus community Thursday.

The blaze started in a malfunctioning electrical power strip that was improperly located near “soft goods,’’ such as bedding, Oneonta fire officials said. About 60 firefighters from multiple departments responded to a general call for assistance.

The fire broke out at about 4 p.m. in a bedroom of a suite on the third-floor Wednesday, the first day of the spring semester. SUNY Oneonta has closed the third floor of Matteson Hall for the semester and is working on relocating the floor’s 56 residents to other dormitories, officials said.

The college’s custodial staff will be working to clean Matteson Hall, officials said, and the other floors will be closed for an undetermined period.

Several students who took shelter in the college Chase Gym on Thursday said they thought the alarm was a fire drill. They said they were coping with frustration, boredom and depression, and they wondered aloud when they could collect personal belongings, if their dormitory would re-open and the fate of their academics.

A group of male students joked about the fact that toiletries were plentiful and what they needed was underwear and socks.

“Sad as it is, all we can do is laugh,’’ Sean Moran, 20, a sophomore from Massapequa, said. “We’re making the best of it.’’

Kleniewski also reached out to parents of Matteson Hall residents early Thursday afternoon to offer an update on recovery efforts and thank them for their patience.

Matteson Hall students will be able to make appointments to gain access to their rooms to retrieve essential items by 2 p.m. today, pending a final safety evaluation by the Oneonta Fire Department, a release said.

“I know that Matteson’s residents are eager to recover their personal belongings and get back to their normal routines,’’ Kleniewski said in a statement to the campus community that was posted on social media. “In the meantime, the college will continue to provide for the students and staff who have been displaced from their homes as a result of the fire.”

Several students said Thursday that they were elsewhere on campus when the fire broke out and couldn’t go into Matteson Hall to collect any possessions.

“I was at the gym — that’s why I have nothing,’’ said Alex Burke, 20, a junior from Massapequa.

The college’s Residence Life Office staff was to meet with students to discuss housing options and other matters, a release said, and faculty members who teach Matteson Hall residents have been asked to give them special consideration regarding attendance, assignment deadlines and being prepared for class during this difficult time, the release said. SUNY Oneonta’s counseling staff also has been available to students.

The SUNY College at Oneonta Foundation is accepting donations to benefit victims of the fire. To make a gift online, visit www.oneontaalumni.com/giving. Gifts should be designated to the “Matteson Hall Fire Fund,” a release said, and checks may be made payable to the SUNY College at Oneonta Foundation and submitted to the Office of College Advancement, 308 Netzer Administration Building, SUNY Oneonta, Oneonta, NY 13820.

Kleniewski said an outpouring of support offered by SUNY Oneonta staff and students, Sodexo, the American Red Cross, and other volunteers has been tremendous.

“The college is grateful to be a part of such a caring community,’’ she said.

At Chase Gym midday Thursday, some students said they stayed with friends Wednesday night. Several undergraduates, who requested anonymity, said they thought the alarm in Matteson Hall on Wednesday was a drill.

“We usually have drills right when school starts,’’ a female undergraduate said. “No one ever thinks this is going to happen.’’

“I thought someone burned popcorn — there was no smoke — nothing,’’ said another student who lived on the third floor. But he left the building, he said, and at some point saw flames.

The woman said she was among the 18 students who stayed in Chase Gym on Wednesday night.

“I couldn’t sleep — I just kept thinking about it and what might happen,’’ she said. “Also, the lights were on.’’

A friend nearby said the gymnasium was a depressing environment, but she tried to encourage him about the temporary housing.

“It’s like a slumber party,’’ she said. “So you should just join in.’’