State Fire Marshal Bart Chambers said during a press conference Tuesday on campus that the explosion that occurred Friday, July 5 in Argenta Hall was “an isolated incident within the boiler room.”
Chambers added that the University has no history of previous boiler maintenance violations and is up to date in its schedule of regular state-mandated inspections. Chambers said he has directed his staff to conduct fire and life safety inspections of all residence halls at the University, starting on Thursday, July 11. The State Fire Marshal, working with the University, is also providing fire life safety information to all incoming and current University students.
“This is a single incident within Argenta Hall,” Chambers said when asked about the safety of other buildings on campus. “It doesn’t look to be a global issue.”
According to Chambers, who cautioned that his final report has yet to be formally filed, an approximate timeline of Friday’s explosion went as follows:
A boiler technician arrived on campus at Argenta Hall Friday, July 5, in order to repair and replace a part on one of Argenta’s boilers, Boiler No. 1, which was having problems earlier in the week and had been shut down since then.
12:42-12:44 p.m.: The initial boiler explosion occurred.
12:44: A three-inch gas line feeder is severed at the junction from the initial explosion with active fire from the line.
12:44:45 – Automatic fire alarm system in Argenta is activated.
12:45:11 – Argenta fire pump started running. Water activates from fire sprinkler system. Some of the occupants in the building heed the alarm and evacuate.
12:45-12:47: Fire from initial explosion was extinguished from the fire suppression system. A free flow of natural gas continued into the structure from the three-inch feeder line. Natural gas fills the basement area where the two boilers are located and travels through the communication ducting and elevator shaft to the upper portions of Argenta Hall.
12:51:51: Reno Fire Department Engine No. 4 is dispatched to Argenta.
12:56-12:57 p.m.: Main gas line is shut off to Argenta Hall from the exterior main gas line located on the west side of Argenta by the technician.
12:57:07: Engine No. 4 arrives on scene.
12:59: Engine No. 4 requests a second alarm due to the initial explosion.
1:00:02 p.m.: Second explosion occurs, causing significant structural damage to Argenta and Nye Halls, injuring eight people.
1:02: Third alarm is requested. Search and rescue operations are initiated.
University Police Services Chief Todd Renwick said that structural inspections of Argenta Hall and Nye Hall, which was also damaged in the explosion Friday afternoon, have shown that both structures are sound. Now that the structures have been determined to be sound, a crane parked on Virginia Street is removing debris from the explosion from the north side of Argenta and the south side of Nye. Once the debris is removed and construction safety netting is applied to the exposed areas of the buildings, Virginia Street will be reopened to traffic.
Vice President of Student Services Shannon Ellis said that efforts to help the students who were displaced by Friday’s blast began almost immediately and have continued. She said counselors were made available as the students began to relocate to Peavine Hall Friday. They’ve continued to be made available as the enormity of what happened Friday has set in for the students.
“We’re making progress on that front,” Ellis said. “I think people are now realizing that they do want to talk about the impact.”
She added that some fulltime staff had residences in Argenta Hall. These individuals have “been getting very little sleep,” Ellis said, as they began to immediately pitch in with the relocation of students and in meeting the students’ immediate needs.
“This is a community of students, faculty and staff who are feeling incredibly grateful there were no serious injuries or loss of life,” Ellis said.
Elis said “a huge priority” over the past few days is developing the housing plan that will help accommodate the more than 1,300 students who would have been residing in either Argenta or Nye Halls. University officials said Tuesday that Argenta and Nye Hall will not be used for the fall semester. Argenta Hall could be offline for up to two years, while Nye Hall, which was damaged less seriously, may be used sooner. Ellis said the University is reaching out to community partners to look at possible leasing agreements to help with rooming needs.
“That’s a huge priority for us,” she said. “We are working on that as we speak. … (Incoming students) will have a good facility and a great staff to help them. That doesn’t change in whatever building you are in.”
Executive Vice President and Provost Kevin Carman said the University, after having initial discussions with the City of Reno, Washoe County and the State of Nevada in the immediate aftermath of the explosion concerning a federal emergency declaration request, will more than likely not submit the request, pending the completion of the gathering of all information related to the explosion. He also said the University has no plans to raise tuition for students to cover any costs associated with the explosion. The Nevada Board of Regents approved a four percent student fees increase during its June 2018 meeting, for both the 2019 and 2020 academic years.
“But there will be no additional burden on students,” Carman said.
Carman said the University plans to rehabilitate and reopen both buildings.
“We can restore them and will restore them and that’s the phase we are at,” Carman said, noting that neither building will be ready for fall 2019.
Chambers said both buildings were well-constructed, and that helped in ensuring their structural integrity.
“Both buildings fared very well considering what was happening at the time,” he said. “The overall structure and configuration did stay intact. The building did what it was supposed to do.”
He praised the University’s safety procedures.
“I cannot praise enough the system that UNR has in place,” he said. “The safety measures that are in place are some of the best in the country.”
Carman said that in addition to Argenta and Nye being declared structurally sound, the Artemesia Building, home to the University’s Human Resources Department (and slightly damaged during Friday’s explosion), has been given clearance by structural engineers to be used again.
“We’ve been given strong assurance Artemesia is fine,” Carman said. “We’re doing all of our due diligence with environmental testing, and with minor cleanup.”
He estimated the building will be back in service either Wednesday or Thursday.
Carman also said every effort is being made to reunify the displaced students with their property.
“Our goal is to get all of that property back to the students,” he said. “We will work through the process in making sure the students get everything they need.”
Carman, Ellis and President Marc Johnson, who was overseas traveling when the explosion occurred Friday, thanked the community for the donations for the displaced students that were made Sunday.
“We’ve been overwhelmed by the generosity, the good wishes, the sympathy and the empathy that people have shown,” Ellis said.
Carman said that although Johnson was traveling overseas, the University’s president was in constant contact with the campus from the time the explosion first occurred.
“He has been with us the entire way,” Carman said. Carman also added that preparation and emergency scenario drills held ahead of time, a clear understanding of roles, and dedication by the University’s people made the difference in how the incident turned out. “The other part of this message I want to convey in terms of President Johnson’s leadership is that he has a great team on this campus,” Carman said. “It was manifested in many ways, and most powerfully over the past few days we’ve seen the great leadership in Student Services and Police Services. They have stepped up and done everything imaginable to address this issue.”
Said Johnson: “Our very first priority, always, first and foremost, is the physical and emotional safety of our students and our staff and faculty. Those were attended to immediately. … This tells the whole community – parents, students and community – that this is a safe place, a well-organized place, and if an incident occurs, your students will always be safe here. The responses worked.”
For those looking for additional information, the frequently asked questions surrounding the Argenta Hall explosion has also been updated.