“Oh my god, Oh my god, oh my god,” were the only words that were coming out of my mouth. As soon as I came out of the doors, my hand flew up to my face in disbelief, dropping my cane and sinking to the floor. This is not something that happens in real life, they must be shooting a movie. Like a surreal bad dream, I couldn’t move, even if I tried I’d be too unsteady to even walk without the use of my cane. All I wanted to do was curl up in a ball and wait for this to pass over. We should have known something was up when out the window we kept hearing the wailing of fire engines and the racing lights, but actually seeing the buildings up in flames in combination with all the other stimulation would be enough to make anyone’s head spin. And it was my dorm, my part of the campus.
***The day began like any other regular Tuesday in the middle of the ‘crunch’ week at Longwood College, the week before review week for final exams, April 24th, 2001, when all the assigned papers and projects are due for the classes. I was so behind in studying, and writing papers; I had hit a writing block, so I decided to go to Lancer gym, to work out the frustrations. Upon walking across campus back ‘home’ (to my dorm room) I was a big sweaty mess, having just worked out on top of the 3 week long heat spell that had been going on in Farmville, VA. It had been so dry, not raining in many weeks and was hot, even in the evenings. Friends were going to a bible study, in the Frazer dorm, and saw me approaching, “Why aren’t you going? It’s the last one- come on,” even though I had many assignments due, and gave excuses-“I need a shower”, “no Bible with me”, they relented until I consented. You only go to college once, right? It was our last Bible study session until school let out, and all of the girls in the small group had become really close. Our study was in the high rise dorm building Frazer, located at the far end of campus, while my dorm room was on the other side of campus, 2 blocks away (it’s a small campus).
The Bible study session was pretty much a reflective session on the year, where we all shared important scriptures that stood out to us. We took an extremely long time praying, and kept on hearing the sirens of firetrucks passing by the Frazer dorm, not even thinking to look what was happening outside, but just continuing to praying about the firetrucks and who they were helping. Finally exiting Frazer, ten minutes later, we saw my dorm building, which was South Ruffner, two blocks away, and the three neighboring buildings, on fire! I don’t mean just a little fire, literally everything was up in flames. The fire had spread incredibly quickly and it was so hot outside that everything was ablaze.
Looking like a scene in a Terminator movie, it was incredible to see; I couldn’t believe it and this was the building where I live! As soon as we exited Frazer, out of the sliding glass doors, we saw everyone. All of the people standing on the steps of Frazer, just watching the oldest buildings on campus as they were burning. Construction was being done to restore the historic part of campus, which was over 150 years old. Now the historical part of the school, the part of the school that was built in 1832, when it was an all female “teaching” school is up in flames.
I know its selfish, but the part that was the worst for me was that it was MY part of the school, my home, where I lived for so many months. The part of campus with which I was so familiar, I lived in South Ruffner, the freshmen female dorm building. The Great fire was called The Ruffners Fire, because it destroyed West Ruffner main Ruffner, and Grainger (a classroom building). There was also a fire on the top floor of South Ruffner, the dorm where I resided. However, the students living in the Colonnades (which included the original dorm buildings Hull and Tabb) were not allowed back into the building (duh, because they were on FIRE). Since I was living in South Ruffner and it was on fire, I was one of the students who could not get back in.
Here I was, a mess having just worked out, having a panic attack, and I needing to be carried away by my Bible study’s boyfriend; the students had to keep moving back, away from the fire. By the time we got up to the highway, an ambulance came by for me. They spoke to me calmly- I explained that I have a hard time making decisions, and this elderly couple invited me to calm down at their house. I asked my Bible study leader what to do, “Only you can make that decision,” the EMTs in the ambulance persuaded me to go to the elderly couple’s house to calm down. “I’ll only go with you if my two friends can come,” they agreed and we went to their cute, cozy house in Farmville. I called my parents very upset, explaining about the fire; they thought it was just a little fire, Kathleen (my bible study leader) got on the phone, “No, Mrs. H, the whole school is up in flames.” They got on the internet and saw how bad it was.
To read about the Longwood College fire, click this:
The Great Ruffner Fire at Longwood in 2001 This article was first published in the Longwood Alumni magazine.
It was 12:30AM when the couple drove us back to campus to stay in my Bible study leader’s room (the part of campus that had not burnt down, all of the other students were staying on campus); I was a big sweaty mess who smelled like smoke, I had to take a shower. The fire was still blazing, I don’t even know when it was finally extinguished, and where was my cane?? (The next day, a girl from our study gave me my cane which had fallen on the ground.) A whole classroom building had burned to the floor, some students [LIKE ME] weren’t allowed back into their rooms; the administrators had no choice but to cancel the end of the year finals. We were left with the grades we had at at our interim review, and sent us all home. It’s a good thing, because I performed a lot better during the first half of the semester. I don’t know how long I’ll live, but I will NEVER forget that day.