about the issue

In 2005, my college roommate sent me a clipping from a Cincinnati paper. I was expecting good news—an engagement or a wedding. But it was a picture of a two-story white brick house with flames soaring from the roof. The headline read “Three Miami University Students Die in Off-Campus Fire.”

My God, it was the house at 122 N. Main Street where we lived our senior year. Six of us shared the first floor, and a grad assistant and his family lived upstairs. My parents never saw the place until graduation. Even if they had, I don’t think it would have occurred to them to wonder if the house was safe. But it wasn’t safe, even 35 years ago.

At the time of the fatal fire, the house was 136 years old. News media reported the following: A cigarette ignited a couch on the first floor at 3 a.m. Nine people were permitted to occupy the house, but there were as many as 13 present. Eight students were known to have escaped. The two girls and one boy who died had twice the legal limit of alcohol in their blood. The building was supposedly up to code, but there was only one smoke detector with no working batteries. News reports also noted that college fires are common—11 deaths had already occurred on U.S. college campuses that year.

So what’s new? When I lived in that “choice rental,” just a block off the campus’s main drag, we smoked Marlboros on what probably was the same stinking couch where the fire started. There were no smoke detectors. Everything in the house was old, ugly and flammable. Parties lasted half the night; people cooked when they felt like it; students got drunk, and overnight guests crowded the place every weekend. Happily, a lot is new. Universities now regulate both on- and off-campus housing more strictly. Codes are tougher, in part because colleges now have to make safety-related statistics public. Dorms have sprinklers and smoke detectors. Off campus housing may still be a less safe option, but students and parents are more savvy of risks and preventative strategies.

Mt. Lebanon’s public safety agencies are playing a role in keeping college students safe. This year, they presented a seminar for parents preparing to send children off to college, and they plan to offer this program annually. In her story, M.A. Jackson includes some of the fire and police departments’ safety tips, which also will be useful to new college grads renting first apartments.

Following the fire, the house I once lived in was razed and the university changed its policy—the next year it required advanced smoke alarms powered by electricity in all off-campus housing. The victims’ parents spoke at graduation and accepted their children’s diplomas. The students’ legacy is the vigilance regarding safety that the university promotes today. These things probably are small consolation to anyone who could have made a quick sweep of the house and said, “Hey, guys, this is a dump. Get outta there.”

So, look around, students and parents. You could save lives. I was just lucky.