Henrique Torres has been in Omaha only about 60 days. The Brazilian exchange student enrolled at the University of Nebraska at Omaha to study chemistry. And as part of the college experience, he signed up to live on campus in one of Scott Village's 10 apartment-style residence halls. He shared a unit with three American roommates on the first floor of Building G.
That building went up in flames Wednesday afternoon in a two-alarm fire that displaced 48 students and injured one Omaha firefighter.
Although the blaze was centered on the third floor, the severely damaged building sustained heavy smoke and water damage throughout.
That left Torres, 20, to ponder whether any of his water-logged belongings could be salvaged. His computer. His clothes. His passport.
“It was a shock, but I am all right,” he said. “I am glad (no students) got hurt.”
All of the displaced students had found housing accommodations by Wednesday night, said Erin Owen, university spokeswoman.
Many stayed with friends or their parents; others found housing in empty apartments in residence halls, and some went to a nearby hotel, she said.
“Any student that needs assistance will get whatever they need,” Owen said, saying it was too soon to discuss long-term housing solutions for the students.
Torres was among five international students who lived in Building G.
Several students said renters insurance would cover their losses. Students are not required to have renters insurance to live in any UNO residence, said Daniel Shipp, associate vice chancellor for student affairs.
Owen said that besides Red Cross disaster relief on-site, offers of help were pouring in from people who want to donate clothes and from other University of Nebraska campuses that are planning fundraisers.
“The community response has been very touching,” she said.
The fire on the UNO Pacific Street Campus was reported about 3:15 p.m. at 1512 S. 63rd Court.
The roof of Building G later collapsed. At the peak, about 50 Omaha firefighters battled the blaze. Five firetrucks and two aerial units were deployed.
The injured firefighter was hospitalized in serious condition. His name was not released.
The fire began on the third floor and spread quickly to the attic because of high winds, Fire Battalion Chief Tim McCaw said.
The second alarm was called in at 3:34 p.m. because of concerns about the fire possibly spreading to another residence hall. As a precaution, students in adjoining residences were evacuated.
McCaw said the third floor was destroyed. He said sprinklers in the building worked properly, though they weren't required in the attic. He said the cause of the fire had not been determined.
The fire was declared under control shortly before 7:30 p.m., Omaha police said.
Scott Village, opened in 2003, has 10 residence buildings and 480 bedrooms. UNO officials accounted for all 48 students in Building G by late afternoon.
Owen said the building's residents included undergraduates, graduate students and some UNO hockey players.
Displaced students were sent to Mammel Hall or the Scott Conference Center food court for information on alternative living arrangements. The school had counselors available for students to talk with. Owen said students and parents can call 402-778-6211 for information.
Eric Anderson, a senior who lived on the third floor of the building, said he was in the UNO television office when he started getting text messages from his roommates and friends that the building was on fire.
He lost camera gear, a laptop, a hard drive and photos.
“All this stuff can be replaced by insurance, but losing those photos is kind of hard,” Anderson said. “The main thing, though, is I'm glad everybody is OK.”
Anderson said he planned to stay Wednesday night at his family's home in Lyons, Neb. Anderson and two roommates, Jason Lynn and Ajay Medury, watched the surreal scene as firefighters trained a hose through one of their apartment windows. They took photos as water shot through the top of the burned-out roof. They also noticed through the blown-out window that, somehow, one of Anderson's pictures of downtown Omaha was still hanging on the wall. It was small consolation, since Anderson said he probably lost all of his hard drives holding the rest of his photographs. Sarai Parker, an 18-year-old freshman from Omaha, said she lived on the second floor of Building G. She was getting ready for work when someone started yelling that there was a fire. Parker said that as she left the building, she encountered heavy smoke at the front entryway. “I wish I knew it was going to be this bad,'' she said. “I would have taken more things with me.”
Written and photos by Chris Machian