If you walked in Gannon University’s Hammermill Center today, you wouldn’t have known that just two weeks ago the place was crawling with workers cleaning up the damage the building sustained after an electrical malfunction ignited a fire in the basement on Dec. 23, leaving it stained and spilled with soot and smoke.
The fire started about 11 p.m. in a room in the middle of the hallway housing the women’s and men’s locker rooms.
According to Linda Wagner, vice president of finance and administration, the basketball court at the Hammermill Center and the women’s locker room – right across from the electricity room where the fire started – sustained the most damage and required the most repairs.
Most of the repairs, Wagner said, were cleaning-oriented as the fire left smoke sweat and soot in the Hammermill Center and the four adjoining buildings – Old Main, Keim Commons, Waldron Campus Center and Beyer Hall.
Damage assessment has not been determined yet as the contractors and the insurance company are still adding up the costs of the repairs, Wagner said.
Wagner said the exhaustive cleanup and repair process summoned the efforts of more than 100 personnel from Gannon and its partners, starting with the night of the incident all the way to Jan. 13, two days before the men’s basketball game was scheduled.
“It was great that we didn’t have students in session,” she said. “It was absolutely great that we were closed from the 24th through the 1st; but then Jan. 2, we needed to have these buildings open and ready for full occupancy.”
One piece of equipment damaged was the fire alarm panel, which had blown off in the fire and was subsequently replaced, according to Gary Garnic, associate vice president for campus services. The new fire alarm will have heat, smoke and gas monitoring systems. The previous system was last installed when the Hammermill Center was first opened in 1949 and had been “advanced” with several additions since.
The university repainted the walls in the court of the Hammermill Center, which made practicing challenging for junior biology major A’darius Porter and the rest of the men’s basketball team.
“It was very hard to breathe because of the fresh paint in the gym but once the air cleaned it was all right,” he said. “I had the flu and an upper respiratory infection and the paint made it 10 times harder to breathe.”
Porter, however, said the changes added a nice touch to the Hammermill Center.
“This was no longer the Hammermill that we were used to,” he said. “We called it the ‘Fun House’ because everything was changed.”
Garnic said the university replaced most of the electric equipment in the center temporarily to prevent further damage, with new permanent equipment to be installed shortly. Additionally, the sound system and the cabling of the court were also permanently damaged and were replaced.
The most lengthy task, Wagner said, was the cleaning of the ceiling and high areas of the basketball court. A cleaning company built scaffolding across the entire center to wash down the ceiling and the connections and then spray them with a sealant. Ozone machines were also used to knock the soot out from the air to the ground.
Garnic said the incident was an unforeseeable rare occasion, one that is not likely to happen in other buildings across campus.
“I can’t say there is not a chance [of this happening again] – there is always a chance when you’re dealing with electricity.” He said. “But with all of the electrical safety equipment that they had and the fused system that they had; the likelihood is so slim. We just can’t explain what happened here.”
Most of the fixtures and equipment in the women’s locker room also required cleaning, starting from basketballs, shoes and any kind of fabric, which the university sent to be laundered.
The laundry process proved to be a challenge, not only for the university, but for the women’s basketball team as well, according to Kelly Sundberg, the leader of the women’s basketball team.
“They had to take everything and put it in bags and wash it,” she said. “I know people lost some things.”
One wrestling match was moved to Mercyhurst College as a result of the fire. Furthermore, two basketball games were moved to Penn State Behrend, where the women’s team had to practice as well.
“It was a 15-minute drive to get there so that was kind of a pain in the neck,” Sundberg, who is a senior sport and exercise science major, said. “It wasn’t the Hammermill – I’ve been playing there for three years so the Hammermill kind of feels like home to me, and it wasn’t home in Penn State Behrend.”
Sundburg said that the team never lacked for their fans’ encouragement, even though the games were moved.
“[Playing there] was definitely different. It wasn’t the same atmosphere and there weren’t our locker rooms,” she said, “but we still had our friends there and there was a lot of support.”
President Keith Taylor, Ph.D., said he was very impressed with the work the staff and Gannon’s partners accomplished in such a short period of time.
“I am amazed that you have an arena and three adjoining buildings with this much space – and number one the miracle that it happened immediately after everyone was gone,” he said, “but to go from the 23rd of December to the 12th of January to clean and repaint – it’s a miracle.”