The University Record, February 8, 1999

Business-as-usual it’s not

Editor’s Note: While News and Information Services has been operational the past two weeks, it has not been “business-as-usual.” We thought it worthwhile to share some of our experiences of suffering and recovering from a small but rather disastrous fire.

By Jane R. Elgass

It sounds like the phone. One eye opens and peers at the clock. 5 a.m. Another sound. It is the phone. The brain says this is not going to be good news.

The calm voice of my boss, Julie Peterson, carries no hint of the gravity of the situation that would unfold in grim reality over the next several hours. “There’s been a fire at NIS. It started in Roger’s office around 2 a.m. No one is hurt, but there’s a lot of damage. I’m asking most of the staff to stay home, but I’d like you to call the rest of the Record staff and go in and assess the damage and see if you can get the paper out.”

There was further conversation about dust masks and other safety precautions. I called Becky, Kerry and Theresa, all three as numbly surprised as I was. I quickly dressed, gathered my planner and a pad of paper, as well as the dust masks in my workroom. Forgot the flashlight. It would have been handy.

Wednesday, 6 a.m.

Driving into Ann Arbor at 5:45 a.m. is eerie. All the lights on the north-south street I travel were on blinking yellow, almost as if they were helping me rush in.

Roger’s there when I arrive, already working to salvage things. My computer is functioning. Becky’s is probably OK too. The Macs we use for producing the Record are covered with plastic tarps. So are Kerry’s and Theresa’s computers. Theirs are right below Roger’s office.

I should mention that Roger’s office housed all the computer equipment for our internal network. The server’s out in the snow, tossed out the window by the fire-fighters. So much for our e-mail and anything on the network that wasn’t backed up on someone’s hard drive. There was a lot on our network.

The second floor’s a disaster zone. Plastic boxes holding application disks and CDs look like modern art sculptures, probably big sellers except for the heavy layer of soot covering them and everything else in and out of sight.

We quickly learn that the soot has traveled throughout the building, into drawers and file cabinets, in places you can’t even contemplate, contaminating just about everything to some degree.

Becky arrives and we decide to test the Macs. They boot up, so we make plans to transfer them to the kitchen in the basement, the only place large enough to set up them and all their peripherals. It’s light outside now, so she goes out and gets some pictures.

Wednesday, 8 a.m.

Kerry and Theresa arrive and we move the Macs. We meet to figure out what we have to do to get the Jan. 25 issue of the Record out.

Plant Operations and Risk Management staff begin arriving, as do personnel from Coach’s Catastrophe Cleaning, all of whom we’ll get to know well over the next few weeks. We explain what we have to do and they tell us what’s possible. This is Wednesday, and the paper goes to the printer Friday afternoon. Our four PCs and the Macs and all their pieces parts have to be removed for cleaning as quickly as possible, no later than 4 p.m. if we want them back the next day.

Theresa huddles under the tarp, entering Calendar listings. Becky begins scanning photos like mad. I draft a message to be sent to RecordAdvance subscribers and key personnel across the University, alerting them to the fire and the fact that we’ve lost all our e-mail. I ask them to share the message with colleagues. Kerry’s sister, at the Medical School, sends it out to thousands. Our moment of fame.

Wednesday, 10 a.m.

Kerry finishes up ads. He and Theresa start experiencing problems with their computers. Theresa takes her source material and heads for the Michigan Union Computing Site. Kerry tackles backing up his hard drive. I start backing up mine, as well as Becky’s and Theresa’s. Thank heaven for external Zips.

Other staff members find their way in during the day, surveying the mess and trying to figure out what to do. Julie works all day trying to find temporary homes for everyone, preferably keeping everyone together as much as possible, and on a million other details. We’re used to helping others during crises, just never thought we’d have our own. Julie’s teasingly accused of trying to make headlines. The Daily did have us on the front page. Must have stopped the presses for that one.

Wednesday afternoon

Somewhere along the line we discover that it’s afternoon and rapidly approaching 4 p.m. Having finished the photos (which thankfully weren’t damaged), Becky starts backing up one Mac on Zips, ultimately using nine. I back up the other one on a Jaz. Whew.

Coach’s folks appear and begin shrink-wrapping and cataloguing all of our computer equipment. A few other things, including the fax machine, will go out as priority items also.

Julie announces that there will be an all-staff meeting at 8:30 the next morning. Risk Management and Coach’s staff will be there to explain what has to be done.

We start moving items we’ll need for the rest of the week to the work-study students’ and interns’ desks in the basement.

Roger’s been hard at work all day making arrangements with the Business and Finance Division for server service out of Wolverine Tower.

Coach’s is bundling up other items, so Roger and I stay until around 10 p.m. to co-sign inventory sheets and help with any questions.


I never get to sleep that night and finally decide at 4 a.m. Thursday to tackle the editing and proofreading I’d taken home. Another eerie drive into town with all those flashing yellow lights. I try to organize our new home as much as possible. Husband is pressed into service to bring in a table and air cleaner, and numerous other things over the next 10 days. We all smell like burned toast.

Second-floor residents learn at the meeting that they can box up only what is essential for the next couple of months, and anything boxed up has to first be wiped down with special sponges. If that’s not possible, machine-copy the papers and pitch the originals. Their computers are the next priority, but will take longer for cleaning as they were most heavily affected. They might be coming back in 10 days or so, if they are salvageable. Three Record staff and five other NIS staff will relocate within the building. Space has been found for most other staff in the Fleming Building, although lots of details need to be worked out.

Coach’s delivers the Record’s PCs and Macs. Two monitors were unsalvageable. Later in the day we lose a CPU, fortunately recovering the hard drive, which contains the macros for “translating” the job postings. We get to work on the Jan. 25 issue. Covering the afternoon Regents’ meeting in dirty jeans and a relatively clean sweatshirt was a bit different. But then, so were the last 36 hours.

Two weeks later

Looking back, the days begin to blur.

Roger and I will end up serving as “site managers” over the next two weeks, working with Coach’s staff and the myriad contractors gutting the second floor so renovations can begin. Heavy-duty air scrubbers, one of which makes you feel as though you’re on an airport runway, become part of the “ambiance” of the building. I’ve been here for 25 of my 27 years at the U (my “anniversary was four days after the fire), so it’s sort of like home.

We get to hold our staff meetings in the Regents’ Room now. Pretty classy. Those chairs are great. Staff from the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program come to our second meeting to let us know about the services they offer. We’ve carried articles about them in the Record. Never thought we’d need their help.

Coach’s sets up permanent residence, boxing up everything from the second floor that won’t accompany staff to their new homes and removing all the furniture for cleaning. All the computers and other electronic equipment are first to be “packed out.” Everything will be cleaned by hand and repacked, to be delivered back to us when the renovations are complete. The first load out—boxes and boxes of files—was the heaviest the truck had ever carried.

Ceiling tiles on the second floor of our 44-year-old building were affixed with glue containing asbestos. That slows the reclamation work as Plant Operations staff dressed in special suits and wearing special air masks begin the tear-down process.

There have been moments.

• We forwarded our fax machine to one in the Fleming Building, we thought. That one wasn’t working quite right—faxes could be sent but none were coming in—so our machine might have to go to Fleming when it came back from cleaning. It returned, we hooked it up and discovered we’d done the reverse. We still have one phone floating in cyberspace. Oh, well . . .

• I come in on Saturday to help Coach’s staff as they tackle cleaning the air ducts, dirty beyond compare even before the fire. The system has to be shut down, so I call the Department of Public Safety to get in touch with someone in Plant Operations who can help. We don’t have access to the locked room housing the controls. The lucky man in Pinckney who got paged calls me to find out what kind of system we have and where the building is located. Seems it’s not on his map of Central Campus facilities. Oh well . . .

There are times when a short burst of hysterical laughter is the only thing that works. I’ve ended up with a pager and a red folder on my desk labeled “Fire.” It gets thicker by the day. We’ve got an intercom system in the building (saves trips between the first floor and “lower mezzanine”); an occasionally functioning doorbell, as there are times we have to lock the front door; and a unisex bathroom. Watch out, Ally McBeal.

As we said in our messages, we’ve had a fire but are still operational. However, particularly for staff from the second floor, it’s far from business-as-usual. And it will remain that way for the next two months or so, the estimated time for repairs and renovation and cleaning of everything from the second floor.