GORHAM — The loud ringing pierced the deep blanket of sleep that lay over Aaron Toman, and he clumsily tried to shut off his alarm.

It took a few seconds for the USM freshman to realize that it was not his phone or his alarm, but the dorm’s fire alarm — and that it wasn’t a false alarm.

“I thought ‘What’s going on?’” Then he saw that everyone was pouring into the halls and down the stairs. In the stairwell, he could smell smoke and hear water dripping.

Fire broke out in a recycling closet in Upton-Hastings Hall early Monday, forcing some 200 newly arrived University of Southern Maine students to evacuate. Even though the fire was quickly doused by the sprinklers in the closet, an investigator’s conclusion that the fire was set intentionally left some students and parents anxious.

“I’m living in a dorm where somebody’s trying to burn you down,” said Alex Belanger of Dayton, echoing a concern expressed by a few students. He lives on the third floor where the fire was, and could smell smoke.

Ryan Lombardi, also of Dayton, lives in a different dorm, but got a concerned phone call from his father making sure he was all right.

Lombardi thought someone might have been smoking and put a cigarette out in a recycling bin, but authorities said no.

“When the state fire marshal left (Monday) morning, he did tell me that there is no doubt the fire was set intentionally,” said USM spokesman Bob Caswell. He was told the investigator was planning to return to campus Tuesday to interview students.

Many students, spending their first weekend on campus, assumed it was a fire drill.

Marnie Lantagne, of Arundel, had studied the evacuation diagram on the back of her dorm room door, and instructed her fellow students which stairwell to use for the evacuation.

Danielle Dalton, of Saco, was with a number of students casually walking toward the stairs when a resident assistant started urging them on. Once in the stairwell, she could smell smoke and hear water. The experience was unsettling, she said.

“It makes you wonder, with all the college things happening,” she said, referring to shootings that have happened in other parts of the country.

Brittany Hartman of Roxbury, Ct., also isn’t worried. There wasn’t a big party, but there were a lot of people up and about, excited about the first weekend of school even though it was 2:30 a.m. when the fire alarm sounded and everyone had to leave.

She had been awake watching the movie “Paranormal Activity 2” when the alarm sounded.

“At first we thought it was part of the movie, then we looked outside and everyone was leaving,” she said.

The students, all unharmed, included freshmen who moved into the dorm for the first time on Saturday and upperclassmen who moved in Sunday. Classes for all students begin Tuesday.

There was no fire or smoke damage outside the closet, Caswell said. Students were allowed to return at 5 a.m.

The last fire in a USM dorm was 12 years ago when a student set fire to a trash bin in Dickey Wood Hall. A student charged with arson could be expelled, Caswell said.

 

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

[email protected]

 

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

[email protected]