The year was 1967. Ferment and experimentation were rife, and nowhere more than the world of academia.
At Cornell, a two-story red brick building had been converted to a dorm and primarily housed young members of a very experimental class: young students, some only 17, who would earn a Ph.D. in only six years on a fast-track program.
(The program, by the way, no longer exists in that form. Students, and knowledge, take time to ripen and mature.)
But April 5th of that year was fateful, and fatal, when the words Fire! began to be shouted throughout the building. A very thick, unusual, oily smoke quickly spread through upper and lower floors.
“Eight students and a 37-year-old professor died of asphyxiation that night. How the fire started remains unsolved. Many people suspected arson, though no one was ever charged.” ~ news.cornell.edu, April 4, 2007
The students of course were moved from the compromised building to other sites, and…two other fires followed in only weeks, seemingly haunting those same students. Astounding, and sobering.
For forty years now, every detective Colombo has wanted to know:
- Who would have hated someone, or several someones in that cohort enough to set a murderous fire?
- Might there have been some motive other than a sick anger or jealousy?
- Is it possible that the first fire was accidental, but the “copycat” fires intentional, as some investigators thought at the time?
- Did the University (guilty of huge lapses in fire safety in the building) cover up, even subtly, the incident and investigation–hoping to minimize liability and bad press?
We’ll bet a lot of you had never heard of this one, the Cornell arson that took young, promising lives. But the campus, and the families of those students, will never forget it.