Freshman withdrawing from school following dorm-room fire
Student didn’t have renters insurance, UB not responsible
Freshman Nichole Mahler plans to withdraw from UB following the Nov. 10 Dewey Hall fire, where she lost nearly all of her belongings including her ID, laptop and credit cards.
The fire, which damaged only Mahler’s belongings, evacuated roughly 800 students in the Governors Complex around 11 a.m. UPD reported the fire appeared to be caused by a heater, but the cause is still under investigation, although Mahler says a UB dorm heater, behind her dresser, caused the fire in her suite. Still, UB’s Campus Living Housing agreement states UB is not responsible for any damages to students’ personal belongings in the event of a fire unless the student has renters insurance, which UB “strongly recommends.”
But Mahler said she didn’t have, or know about, renters insurance.
UB has just under 8,000 students living on campus, according to Michael Koziej, senior associate director for Campus Living, but doesn’t compile information on how many students have insurance coverage.
“We strongly recommend renters insurance to our students and we encourage students to look at their parents’ homeowners insurance to confirm coverage,” Koziej wrote in an email.
Mahler said UB “did not say a word” to her about renters insurance.
“I asked my mom if I had it and she had no idea what it was and stated they never asked if we wanted it when I enrolled here,” Mahler said. “All she remembers is signing something stating that UB is not liable for things like this.”
UB’s Campus Living Housing Agreement states that “Campus Living does not assume any obligation or liability for loss or damage to items of personal property … This includes but is not limited to damage, loss, fire, water damage, theft, flooding, etc. Students are strongly encouraged to purchase renters insurance for protection against loss or property damage.”
Fire investigators finished analyzing the scene at 4:30 p.m. on Nov. 10 and the three girls who lived in the suite gathered their belongings, according to the police report. UB relocated Mahler, a biomedical sciences major, and her two roommates to a Creekside Village apartment, providing bedding and pillows. Mahler said UB left them “without basic needs” like soap and toilet paper. Koziej wrote that when students move into UB’s apartments, Campus Living doesn’t provide toiletries.
“This move was done quickly, during an emergency situation and the lack of toiletries was an oversight,” Koziej wrote. “Had we known that the students were lacking these items, we could have provided them.”
Mahler’s friend Maria Crane, a freshman occupational therapy major, and her friends started a GoFundMe page for Mahler and her roommates which raised $1,445 as of Saturday afternoon.
“I don’t know what [UB’s] plan of emergency is, but they didn’t even get them basic needs like toilet paper,” Crane said. “So we figured if we started [the GoFundMe] it could get them by with essential stuff to live.”
Mahler said she woke up at 10:45 a.m. that morning to the smell of smoke in her room, Dewey 101B. She saw smoke coming from her dorm’s heater behind her dresser, so she woke up her roommates, left the room and called 911.
“The police came and opened the door to our room and tried to go in, but there was so much smoke, they couldn’t get in there,” Mahler said. “And that was only five minutes after we had left.”
Mahler sat in a police car while UPD questioned her.
During the investigation, Mahler said police were “looking for somewhere to blame.” They asked her and her roommates if they had problems with each other and if they would ever try to do something like this to each other, according to Mahler.
Josh Sticht, UPD deputy chief of police, wrote in an email that UPD doesn’t “believe the fire to be criminal.”
“Investigators have to ask direct questions to ensure that we arrive at the truth, whatever the truth happens to be for a particular case,” Sticht wrote.
Koziej said the students “were referred to UB’s Office of Student Conduct and Advocacy to seek support from the UB Student Life Emergency Gift Fund, which offers temporary financial assistance for immediate and current emergency situations.”
But Mahler said she filed a claim and signed up for the emergency fund assistance but hasn’t heard back, as of Wednesday.
“The emergency is kind of over now, they should have done something in the first couple of days,” Mahler said.
She said the whole experience was “traumatizing,” and she “had to reach out” to counselors get her “own” emotional help. Koziej said “students were offered UB’s Counseling Services and the UB Card Office provided new UB cards at no cost for individuals whose cards were damaged in the fire.”
“Students have also been informed of and provided information for UB’s small claims process for loss of property,” Koziej said. “All students were given multiple points of contact and encouraged to reach out if they need anything. Parents of affected students have also been contacted by the university and we’ll continue to update them.”
Koziej says Campus Living has taken steps to “re-educate” students on fire safety.
“Campus Living staff are conducting room by room inspections and will continue them over the next few weeks to ensure compliance with Campus Living guidelines,” Koziej said.
Mahler went home to Saratoga Springs on Tuesday where she will present her case to the Office of the Registrar to see if she is eligible for withdrawal from UB for the remainder of the semester. Students who experience events “outside of their control that impact their ability to perform in academics” are eligible for academic withdrawal, according to UB’s website. Students who withdraw will receive a “W” in all enrolled courses in order to retake them in future semesters.
Mahler said she hopes to “start over next semester,” but UB is moving the three back into the same room in Dewey Hall next semester.
Koziej said Campus Living is “working closely” with contractors and anticipates work to be done before the spring semester. He said the office will work with the students to find other options “based on available vacancies.”
“This took a huge toll on my mental health because it was kind of traumatizing,” Mahler said. “So I’m going home for the rest of the semester, taking a withdrawal and starting over next semester.”
Brittany Gorny is the senior news editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @BrittanyGorny.