In room 317 of the Earth and Space Sciences building, black soot marks the ceiling just under the spot where a smoldering ember sparked a fire on the roof last Monday.
The ESS building was undergoing roof repairs in which workers were using a method known as “torch-down roofing,” a commonly used procedure that involves directly heating slabs of asphalt with a torch to adhere them to a surface. Though the asphalt barrier that results from torch-down roofing is safe, the application process is a well-known fire hazard. Since torch-down roofing is commonly done in segments, workers had left at around 2 p.m. that Monday, planning to return in an hour so that the roof’s progress could be inspected.
According to Owen Evans, the director of laboratories and building manager at ESS, an ember had gotten into the insulating material beneath the asphalt, where there was not enough oxygen for it to burn out properly and it had smoldered until around 9 p.m. “It’s an artifact of the way you do these roofs,” Evans said.
John Gallo, the university’s manager of fire safety, said that the fire had spread over a six-foot section of the roof, burning for little more than three minutes prior to the arrival of the Stony Brook and Setauket fire departments.
Room 317, also known as the mass spectrometry lab, was a laboratory reserved for graduate students and researchers. Its pure white walls create an atmosphere that belies the faint odor of smoke that continues to linger in the air, and large clear tarps have been draped over the two immense mass spectrometers that were too heavy to be moved.
“Coming into this room was like looking through a glass of milk,” Evans said, referring to the thick smoke that was present in the lab at the time that he had arrived in the building last Monday night. The only thing he could immediately see was the orange band formed by the burning drop ceiling.
The fire was not the only cause of the damage to the building — although most of the damage has already been cleaned up and repaired, the hoses used by the fire departments had caused water damage in some of the rooms, which manifested itself in the form of small, frothy bubbles that emanated from between the cracks in the partially removed floor with each step. Though this is also a recipe for mold, the water, in conjunction with the smoke, had caused damage to some vital lab equipment and desktop computers. The full extent of the damage cannot yet be determined because electrical power to the lab has been and continues to be cut off.
“We had just taken delivery of one of the mass spectrometers,” Evans said. When he lifted a tarp over one of the machines, the acrid smell of smoke immediately poured out. “The mass spectrometers can’t be used until the circuit breakers are replaced.”
However, a twist of fate may have saved the entire building from suffering the same fate as the lab.
“We’re very lucky,” Evans said. “As part of making the lab state-compliant, a smoke detector was installed.” Many of the older laboratories have not yet been outfitted with smoke detectors.
Although the damage to the mass spectrometry lab may put it out of commission for “a couple of months,” according to Evans, the rest of the laboratories on the lower floors, which were partially affected by water damage, are up and running. However, the roof’s construction has been stopped until further notice, according to Gallo.