Small fires were lit in multiple bathrooms in the Hillside freshman residence hall on Saturday, Oct. 22.
Two alarms were set off, the first at around 8 p.m. and the second occurring later that night sometime after midnight.
“After further investigation, we found out that there were several small fires set in different locations throughout tower A in Hillside within […] several bathrooms there,” URI Police Major Michael Jagoda said of the university’s police department.
While the first alarm was pulled by RAs after they found a burning roll of toilet paper, the second alarm was caused by a more serious fire that set off the fire protection system in the sprinkler. Four rooms on the fifth and fourth floor were affected by water damage from the sprinkler system and residents within those rooms were displaced.
“When the second [alarm] went off I was kinda freaking out a little,” Kaylee Gibson, a freshman living in Hillside, said. “I never realized how much danger we were really in.”
Jagoda urges all students and staff to take alarms seriously for evacuations. “It could be a serious violation and also a department violation if a student stays within their rooms,” Jagoda said. “We have to take them all very seriously.”
As of right now, the university’s police department is still conducting an investigation into the events of that night. They are working in conjunction with the Rhode Island State Fire Marshal’s Office, which is helping to provide resources that the university police do not have on hand, such as canines.
“We’re still talking to witnesses, we’re talking to students,” Jagoda said. “We’re getting some good information.”
Although Jagoda cannot disclose what evidence the police department has acquired, he does assure that the department has “physical evidence” that they are analyzing.
Rachel Wenquest, a freshman living on the fifth floor of Hillside, said she was questioned by the police the night of Nov. 22. “The people in hillside were already crazy, so I almost expected something like this to happen,” Wenquest said.
Wenquest also described the confusion that went on after the second alarm. Her and other residents on the fifth floor were told at first that they could not go back to their rooms, but then a few minutes later they were informed that they could. Wenquest did not take any chances, though, and said she decided to stay with a friend from another dorm.
Jagoda said that this confusion might have come about when rescue were making sure the floor was safe for the residents to return to. “It was more of a precautionary measure that was taken so that everyone will go back to a safe environment.”
Based on the evidence that the police department has, Jagoda believes that the fires were lit intentionally. Jagoda explained that “alone would make it per state statute an arson.”
“We don’t believe we have an arsonist,” Jagoda said. “[But] any time somebody intentionally sets fire onto a university property that could cause serious injury or death is a very serious crime.”
According to Jagoda, if there is an arrest it will be done by the university police department. He does not know what the repercussions will be for whoever committed the arson, but he does say that it will be up to the Attorney General’s office. “An arson first is a felony in the state, so it’s very serious consequences which could be up to jail time,” Jagoda said.
The Rhode Island Fire Marshal’s Office has issued a reward up to $5,000 for any information that would help with the ongoing investigation. “We think this is an opportunity for some of our community members to come forth with any information,” Jagoda said. “It’s completely confidential and I think that’s important that we have a safe campus community here.”
The URI police have their own tip hotline, but so far they have not received any information or leads to follow up on.
“I have a lot of confidence in our investigators working in conjunction with the state fire marshal’s office and that something will come forward,” Jagoda said, “We will hopefully find out who’s responsible for this.”
For anyone with information about this or other incidents, the Fire Marshal’s tip hotline is 401-383-7725 and the URI Tip Hotline is 401-874-TIPS.