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Archive for Tuesday, April 21, 1970

Arson suspected in $1 million union loss

April 21, 1970

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A spectacular million-dollar fire, apparently touched off by an incendiary bomb, flashed through the top two floors of the six-level Kansas University Student Union late Monday night to climax a night of racial turmoil in Lawrence.

The fire wrecked the top two floors and collapsed the roof of the central part of the Union on the Kansas University campus.

Fire Chief F.C. Sanders said the fire department is "strongly suspicious" of a fire bomb from the preliminary investigations and reports of officers of the Department of Public Safety who were first on the scene.

"They (the officers) said the plaster was knocked off the wall. Apparently there was an explosion. Then the fire spread real quickly," Sanders said.

Miraculously, except for one or two firemen overcome by smoke, there were no reports of injuries to persons in the building at the time of the fire, firemen fighting the blaze or students helping firemen. Everyone had cleared the roof section before it collapsed.

Kansas University officials do not know how many persons were in the building at the time of the fire, but Frank Burge, director of the union, said there were 25 meetings in the building Monday night.

KU officials have refused to give an official estimate of the cost of the fire but they have said more than 40,000 square feet of floor space in the central core were wrecked.

In addition, there was severe water damage to the other four floors in the central core and in areas to the south of the central core.

Water was deep in the Kansas Bookstore, but the new Oread Book Shop was among areas in the new wing on the north side of the building which was untouched by the fire. There is heavy smoke damage throughout the building.

Figuring $20 cost to repair each square foot, the fire damage alone would run to more than $800,000. Fortunately, all of the art works scattered throughout the building were removed before the blaze could damage them.

1970: A year of turmoil

Forty years ago today, the Kansas Union burned. What followed was a year of violence and destruction not seen since Quantrill's Raid. While the unrest has long since dissipated, the memories remain.

Burge said Monday night that at least a portion of the Union might be reopened soon if the old part could be sealed off.

The union fire began at about 10:38 p.m., following an evening of unrest which came in the wake of continued racial incidents at Lawrence High School.

The first events of the night were reported at about 9:13 p.m. when three fire bombs were tossed through a window of the School District 497 Administration Building just south of the high school grounds.

Only minor damage resulted when one of the three bombs went off during a school board meeting in the nearby high school auditorium. Then, in a series of apparently related incidents, windows were shot out about 9:29 p.m. at Wilson Glass Co., 512 E. Ninth; Apex Glass Co., 313 E. Eighth; and Auto Glass Co. 730 N.J. Shots also were fired at the Santa Fe Depot, 413 E. Seventh, at 9:33 p.m.

Firemen answering the call to the USD Administration Building were shot at, according to Sanders. Men on the truck saw the unidentified gunman and saw the flash of fire from a muzzle. No men or equipment were hit.

The Union fire apparently began near the Pine Room on the third floor of the Union, quickly spread and broke through the roof on the west side of the building about 11 p.m.

The entire Lawrence Fire Department augmented by more than a hundred student volunteers, fought the blaze from inside and on the roof. By 11:30 p.m. the most serious portion of the blaze was centered above the ballroom. For a time it appeared the ballroom might be saved.

Students hauled furniture into the new wing of the union — north of the fire — as hoses were hauled into the building. Firemen were hampered through the night by low water pressure in the hoses which wound snake-like up and around the three flights of stairs to the roof.

At one point, a large fire line ruptured on a stairwell. The force of the rupture knocked out a section of the banister railing as students and firemen were forced to retreat temporarily.

Four pumper trucks, the aerial hook and ladder and the snorkel truck rolled to the scene of the fire leaving only two other pieces of equipment available to answer a call at 11:06 p.m. to Woods Lumber Co. to handle a small fire. It was not certain whether any of the incidents during the night are related, but there are indications this was the case.

A huge chunk of glass was kicked out of the wall in the Union Bookstore but Union Director Frank Burge said this was apparently only the result of someone trying to save books and not related to the fire bombing.

It took firemen about two hours to bring the blaze under control. The fire appeared from the ground to be nearly under control just after midnight but flames burst through the roof at about 12:30 in a spectacular blaze that was visible for miles.

Flames raced the length of the roof in the old section leaping more than 40 feet in the air.

At that point a large chunk of the roof collapsed despite efforts of the men in the snorkel truck and hook and ladder to save it.

Students gathered at the scene almost immediately and at times the bystanders on the east and west sides of the building numbered more than 1,000.

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