National Campus Fire Safety Month Launches on Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- It was a tough day Tuesday for Ashley Perdue, a student at the University of South Carolina.

"It's been hard. But, I have seven of my friends, seven angels with me..."

Perdue was referring to her seven friends who perished in a blaze last Oct. 28. "They are speaking through me."

She has a special reason for promoting fire sprinklers and campus fire safety. Perdue made it out of that beach house on Ocean Isle that horrific morning.

"It was 6 a.m. I must have been in a dead sleep. The alarm didn't wake me up. I don't know what did. Maybe it was the heat or the smoke. I was on the main floor. I just ran to the door and outside..."

Learning that sprinklers would have made a difference, Perdue said she'll stop at nothing to promote the devices.

Perdue was one of several dozen college students, parents and fire safety advocates who showed up on Capitol Hill on Tuesday for the launch of National Campus Fire Safety Month.

The group had a victory to celebrate as well -- the signing of the Campus Fire Safety Right-to-Know Act.

The measure that is part of the Higher Education Opportunity Act requires all colleges and universities to report fire safety information annually to the Secretary of Education, said Ed Comeau, publisher of Campus Firewatch.

Like many college students, campus fire safety wasn't a priority for Shawn Simons either. That was until Jan. 19, 2000.

Simons, a student at Seton Hall University, was awoken about 4:30 a.m. by a fire alarm. "They were serious about fire drills. If you ignored the alarm, and didn't go out, they would fine you."

That's why Simons and his roommate decided to dress and head out into the winter night. They made it, but not as they'd planned. Both suffered extensive burns.

Three freshmen in Boland Hall weren't as lucky, and another 58 were hurt.

"If there had been fire sprinklers, I may not be here now," he said.

Simons has just finished a book about his experiences that night.

It was that deadly fire in New Jersey that sparked increased awareness about fire safety on college campuses.

Congressman Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J., and Congressman Joe Wilson, R-S.C., introduced campus fire safety legislation in 2000. They saw defeat after defeat, but told the crowd they refused to give up on what they believed was a life saving initiative.

"It is because of my friend and colleague (the late Congresswoman) Stephanie Tubbs Jones that we are standing here today. Her work on campus fire safety will leave an indelible mark on education policy in this nation," Pascrell said.

It took eight long years, he said, but the fight was worth it. Pascrell praised the students and parents for staying strong. "Together we're going to prevent needless deaths."

Kaaren Mann isn't sure where she draws her strength to talk about the fire in the beach house that claimed her daughter, Lauren, last October. But, she hasn't left any door closed.

"It was a black hole for all of us. What a horrific weekend. We all went to each others' children's funerals to offer support. It was exhausting, draining..."

She pulled herself out of the hole, and started promoting sprinklers. Mann first took her stories to the South Carolina legislature. "I don't know why, but they were willing to talk to me."

But, legislators did more than just give Mann and Perdue an ear. They listened. South Carolina was the first state to give breaks or incentives to those who install sprinklers.

Whitney Chisholm, another USC student, said she was looking forward to talking with various Congressmen and Senators about the importance of sprinklers, especially on campuses.

"In the past eight months, there have been four fires on campus. All were put out by sprinklers," she said, adding that the systems need to be installed in off campus housing as well.

Thomas Will, a junior at UNC at Chapel Hill, said things changed on that campus following the graduation day blaze in 1996 that claimed five lives. Local ordinances require automatic sprinklers in all Greek housing. "It really touched a lot of people, and raised awareness. Sprinklers would have made a difference," he said.

Bonnie Woodruff said it was the day that changed her family's lives forever. "It was Mother's Day and Graduation Day..."

She's been on a mission since learning that fire sprinklers could have saved her son, Ben, and the other four students.

The students and parents spent the afternoon meeting with legislators, encouraging them to pass the Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act.

Comeau said he was pleased with the showing of support to enhance campus safety.

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