Dozens of Firefighters Respond to Cornell College Fire
By Jill Kasparie and Addison Speck, Reporters
MOUNT VERNON, Iowa - Lightning struck an old Cornell College building early Friday morning, igniting a fire that destroyed the bell tower atop the building and melted the one-ton bell inside.
"I was awake because I knew there was a storm and there was a tremendous boom," said Denver Dillard, who lives just across the street from the college. "I just woke up in the middle of the night, it was super loud," added Michael Kelso, a student who lives on campus.
Firefighters said they rushed to College Hall around 5:40 a.m. The historic bell tower or cupola on the top of the building was up in flames. Dozens of firefighters were there to lend a hand.
"We couldn't find fire inside the building, so we gained access to the attic, went up into the attic, still couldn't find fire, we started seeing smoke and we got up into the steeple building in which we found fire and smoke. So we started an attack and at the same time we had trucks coming from Cedar Rapids and Marion to help us since we don't have a ladder truck," said Mount Vernon Fire Department Lt. Mehrdad Zarifkar.
Zarifkar is also a Cornell alum and found himself relieved the fire hadn't spread too far, when they arrived. "We went up and we were expecting the top floor to be on fire, so I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn't as far as we thought it was," he said
Crews said the fire only spread to a portion of the roof and attic, but the rest of the building was not damaged by the fire. The college knows it will have some water damage near the bell tower to deal with.
College spokesman Jamie Kelly said firefighters spent several hours putting out the fire and making sure all of the hot spots were extinguished. According to Kelly, crews were called back to the building hours after the lightning strike when a roofing company climbed up to check out the damage and found some material still smoldering.
College Hall houses classrooms and offices, so no one was inside when lightning struck the building. People passing by were saddened by the sight of the charred bell tower, but thankful the fire didn't consume the entire building.
"This is a building that really means a lot to campus. It's the second oldest on campus and it was actually built by students and professors in 1857. They didn't have an architect, they didn't hire a contractor. It's a building people really love having class in because it really ties it into the history," Kelly said.
He added that the building is symbolic to both the school's relationship with Mt. Vernon and the dedication that people have to the building and Cornell. Students agreed the building is much more than just a place to sit in class. "It's really great there was no structural damage to the building. I know it's pretty important to me and the rest of us here," said Vandergast.
Kelly said the 10 classes that were scheduled in College Hall on Friday were moved elsewhere on campus. This is only the first week of the fall semester at Cornell. "We're planning that the students who have class in the basement, 1st and 2nd floors will be in College Hall on Monday," he said.
Firefighters said the historic one-ton bell was melted by the lightning strike. Kelly described it as flattened, melted and cracked. The college said it typically rings it twice a year for special occasions like graudations and inaguruations for new college presidents. "It was kind of a very collegiate thing to do. It sounded lovely and it sort of echoed all over campus so it's a sad thing to lose," said Kelly.
Kelly said campus leaders are working to find the original plans and drawings in the archives to determine how or if they can rebuild the belltower. He added it was likely they will try and find a creative way to get what's left of the bell back on campus somewhere.
As of Friday afternoon, they were still assessing the damage and Kelly suspects they will work through the weekend to clean things up. He said they will make a final decision on Sunday what classes will return to College Hall on Monday.
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