How the 1977 PC dorm fire led to fire safety changes nationwide

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Providence College will mark a somber anniversary next month: 40 years since one of the deadliest dorm fires in U.S. history broke out at Aquinas Hall.

The fire started in the early morning hours of Dec. 13, 1977. Investigators believe students drying wet mittens with a hairdryer in a closet ignited the flames, which fueled paper Christmas decorations that covered the walls of their room and the fourth floor hallway.

Ten women were killed, two of whom jumped to their deaths.

“One of the firefighters was going up on the aerial ladder saying ‘stay there, stay there’ and they jumped,” said Retired Assistant Chief of Operations Michael Dillon.

Dillon was 24 years old when he was called to the scene to assist with search and rescue.

“I mean this is 40 years ago and this is burned in my memory,” said Dillon. “I’m never going to forget what happened that night.”

Retired Deputy Acting Assistant Chief Paul Thomas was stationed at Branch Avenue firehouse that night. He’d just returned from another fire when his engine was called to the Providence College campus.

Once he arrived, Thomas went into the dorm and met up with another firefighter who was carrying a student.

“He passed her to me, and then I proceeded downstairs,” Thomas said. “We didn’t have radios in those days, so I just had to track down the rescue truck to find a place to bring her to get medical attention.”

That was the last time Thomas saw or heard from her.

“I don’t know exactly where this girl came from in the building, and I don’t know if she survived, honestly.” Thomas said, pausing. “I think of it a lot.”

Father Brian Shanley, president of Providence College, was a student at PC in 1977 and lived in Raymond Hall, which is located across from Aquinas. Fr. Shanley said the firefighters were the real heroes that night and they saved a lot of lives.

The night still haunts him, however.

“I’ll never forget that night and never have forgotten the sadness of the days that followed,” Shanley said. “For me, I hadn’t ever seen anything traumatic and haven’t since. When you’re 18 or 19 years old you think the world is your oyster and you’re confronted with death and it’s traumatic.”

Rhode Island’s acting Fire Marshal James Gumbley told Eyewitness News that while Aquinas Hall was up to code at the time, students still had no idea a fire was racing through the fourth floor.

“In that building, there was no smoke alarms, there was no smoke detectors,” he said. “It was code compliant at the time but it was inadequate.”

Since then, critical changes have been implemented to the state’s fire codes.

“We learned a lot of lessons. One: We had to improve the fire alarm systems in buildings,” Gumbley said. “We learned sprinkler systems can save lives.”

He also said they determined that corridors can’t be designed beyond a certain length because “people have to have a chance to get out.”

Gumbley said under today’s code, smoke alarms within a dorm room are not required to be connected to a fire alarm system to reduce false alarms. However, a heat detector or sprinkler head is required in each room, along with the corridor smoke detectors that will activate the fire alarm system and notify the fire department.

“If someone were to take off one of those smoke detectors in the corridor it should indicate trouble at the fire alarm panel and make a noise,” Gumbley said.

The R.I. General Assembly also implemented new laws in the wake of the dorm fire, mandating fire drills each year and prohibiting the use of hot plates and other cooking devices.

“Tragedies like this are a good example that it can happen to you,” said Gumbley. “I think when you’re young you feel invulnerable, nothing bad can happen to you, but it can.”