Fatal Amherst, MA Fire Raises Concerns for Students Living Off-Campus

Fire officials in Amherst, Massachusetts say an early morning blaze on Monday at an apartment building where one student was killed and more than thirty people left homeless — raises a string of safety concerns about off-campus housing.

The Rolling Green complex was built three or four decades ago. And that makes it similar in age and structure to many of the apartments UMass students consider when choosing to move out of the dorms. Assistant Fire Chief Lindsay Stromgren says older units like Rolling Green and Amherst Crossing — which suffered a similar blaze four years ago — were built before state law called for safety mechanisms like sprinkler systems and fire resistant floors.

“A lot of them are wood trusses and a lot of them have big open attic spaces. So if you do get a fire that gets up into the attic space, once its up there it can run the whole length of the building. And that’s what happened in this case.”

Stromgren says there are very few new apartments around Amherst — and that shortage means those that do exist tend to be out of many students’ price range. But even in buildings with safety mechanisms, he says, some students take a risk by overfilling living spaces to cut down on rent. In some cases, students occupy what he calls “illegal bedrooms.”

“Either in attic spaces or in basements. And the problem with those is they don’t have the proper means of egress if there is a fire. You know you can imagine if you’re down in the basement, there aren’t windows you can get out of and your only way to come out is up.”

Stromgren says the cause of the fire at Rolling Green is still under investigation, as is the building’s use of smoke detectors. Calls placed to the property management company in charge of the unit were not returned in time for broadcast. The victim of the fire has been identified as twenty-one year old James E. Hoffman of Stoughton.