Lee University dorm fire anniversary remembered

By TIM SINIARD
Posted 11/4/18

It was 2:30 a.m., 25 years ago when the fire broke out in the prayer room at Lee College's Ellis Hall.Although it was the wee hours of the morning on that fateful morning in Nov. 4, 1993, some …

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Lee University dorm fire anniversary remembered

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It was 2:30 a.m., 25 years ago when the fire broke out in the prayer room at Lee College's Ellis Hall.

Although it was the wee hours of the morning on that fateful morning in Nov. 4, 1993, some students were still awake and noticed smoke billowing out of the room.

They were unaware the fire was an act of arson perpetrated by four non-students, who deliberately set the fire in an act of revenge.

Three of the surviving students, Rob Alderman, Jason Hopkins and Dave Webb spoke about their harrowing experiences 25 years ago during a seminar held Friday at Lee University during its Centennial Week celebration.  The institution changed its name to Lee University in 1997.

Although 17 students were injured, there were no deaths.

Hopkins said the fire started below his dorm room.

“My roommate yelled fire,” Hopkins said, adding  plumes of smoke had immediately begun engulfing a nearby stairwell.

He said the hallway quickly became dark with smoke, making it difficult to navigate the way out, as well as breathe.

“They say the smoke will get you before the fire,” Hopkins said. “It’s so true.”

Not long after, he could hear windows smashing. It was later learned that students – unable to open the windows – had to resort to smashing their way out of the dorm.

“The windows were caulked shut,” Hopkins said.

Webb said after he had escaped the building, he could also hear windows being smashed. Students were jumping from the upper floors to escape the smoke and flames.

“I thought someone threw a bag of laundry out of the window, but it was a person,” Webb said.

He said someone else landed on top of the student seconds later.

The three Lee graduates then paused while a video of a  news report was shown.

The video depicted the entire dorm engulfed in flames, with shocked students gathered outside as firefighters worked to douse the flames.

In the video, Lee president Dr. Charles "Paul" Conn spoke of the event and how it had resulted in only injuries.

“We did not get lucky,” Conn said. “We had a miracle in our midst.”

The fire was set by four men who were intent on revenge after engaging in an altercation with some other Lee College students the previous month. 

According to a Fall 2013 issue of The Magazine of Lee College, “Four young men who lived in a neighborhood near campus slipped into the side door of the dorm about 2 a.m. and doused an empty prayer room with a gallon of gasoline and threw a match. The fire engulfed the entire building within seven minutes, and dozens of sleeping students were awakened by flames and smoke.”

The men “had returned to campus to watch Ellis Hall burn, and a Lee student thought they looked suspiciously out of place, and remembered them well enough to pick them out of a photo lineup weeks later,” the article stated.

The four arsonists were arrested several days later. They wereconvicted and received prison sentences.

During the seminar, Alderman, Hopkins and Webb preferred to focus on the positive outcomes of the fire.

Webb said he is still amazed there were no deaths.

“Divine Providence intervened that night,” Webb said.

Hopkins said the dorm fire is one of the defining moments of his life. He told Lee students attending the seminar they too will encounter difficult moments; however, he said such events should not result in them losing their religious faith.

Alderman said Lee University is a very special place, where students can feel they are a part of a caring community.

“So many people in the world are so alone, but we [Lee students] were not alone.”

Hopkins said students should remain steadfast in their faith, despite challenges they may encounter in life.

“You will have a life changing event,” Hopkins said. “[God] will get you through that. Hold on to your faith.”

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