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Broken sprinkler leaves several floors soaked, items ruined

American-Statesman (12/05/2002)

By Jeremy Schwartz

SAN MARCOS — When the fire alarm went off, Southwest Texas State University sophomore Marybeth Powers thought she’d be back in her room in a few minutes, so she didn’t gather up her belongings. Worst of all, she didn’t print out her philosophy paper, which she had just finished typing and was due the next day.

But instead of a routine fire alarm, the early Tuesday morning emergency turned out to be a devastating flood that left several floors of the College Inn dormitory under water. Almost 150 of the dorm’s 275 students were left temporarily homeless just as they were gearing up for finals.

According to university officials, a sprinkler in a fifth-floor suite was broken in the middle of the night, which caused hundreds of gallons of pressurized water to pour freely for about an hour. By the time the building’s water was shut off, five floors were flooded, leaving a mess of ruined clothes, class notes, computers and carpets. No price has yet been put on the damage.

All of the displaced students were moved into nearby motels. School officials said that at one motel, they were paying $50 a night for a room for two students. It was unclear Wednesday who would foot the bill for the off-campus housing or who would pay for the damage in the dorm. The school is self-insured and also has some liability coverage from the company who sold the sprinklers.

Officials aren’t sure how the sprinkler broke, but university police are investigating the possibility of vandalism.

SWT spokesman Mark Hendricks said the dozens of students whose rooms were on the second floor will return by today, and the rest should be able to return by Friday -- after some serious cleanup and wet vacuuming.

The four-person suite where the sprinkler broke was heavily damaged and won’t be fixed until next year. The 137 students living on the four floors above the broken sprinkler went back to their rooms Tuesday afternoon.

Meanwhile, the affected students are waiting out the cleanup and studying at their motels.

“In a way it affects finals, just because I haven’t gotten much sleep in the last few days,” a weary Powers said Wednesday, after an afternoon nap at her temporary home, the Quality Inn on Interstate 35. Luckily for Powers, she was able to return to her room for a few minutes Tuesday to retrieve her paper and turn it in on time.

“You have to get up an hour earlier,” Valerie Ornelas said of the trek from her motel to class. “It’s just a big hassle.”

Ornelas’ roommate, Christy Marbach, lost most of her clothes to the flood and was able to salvage only her pajama bottoms, some T-shirts and some undergarments. The roommates, who live directly under the suite where the flood began, said they heard a loud boom before they fell asleep.

“It looked like someone was holding a water hose over the tiles on the bathroom ceiling,” Marbach said.

Students can fill out claim forms in the lobby of the dorm to get lost possessions reimbursed, and the school is setting up a textbook loan program for students whose books were destroyed.

Hendricks said a memo has been sent to professors asking them to work with students who have lost notes or end-of-semester papers. Finals begin next week.

“In terms of timing, there’s never a good time, but this is probably one of the worst times,” Hendricks said.