For the second time in a week, a fire broke out yesterday at Dalian Fisheries University, where I live and have taught since last September. A dozen researchers watched their living quarters be consumed by a fast-moving blaze while they stood in their laboratory across the way.
The best guess of everyone on scene was that bad wiring sparked the blaze. That's how another fire started last week in the library: a poorly maintained electrical panel, according to my students. Yesterday's fire took two minutes to spread through several dorm rooms in the southwest corner of campus. No one was hurt.
Three women were in one of the rooms that burned. According to people on scene, they went out a window and climbed across a narrow ledge to an adjacent rooftop to wait for rescue. Much of what they owned was destroyed.
I was at a cafe down the street when the fire trucks came barreling through the neighborhood. Smoke was visible, and the smell of charcoal spread throughout campus as sirens wailed from Heishijiao.
I legged it up the hill to my buildingÃ¢â‚¬â€lungs punishing me; I'm completely out of shapeÃ¢â‚¬â€to grab my camera and voice recorder. I slowed to a fast walk, and it hit me how calm everyone was. There's a fire on campus, firemen are blasting water at a burning building a few hundred yards away, and everyone just looks bored. How often does this happen?
A burly, thuggish man stopped me just past the gate, a hundred yards or so from the burning building. I could see one red truck and its crew spraying water over the blackened frame. My eyes aren't good enough to pick out details at that range, though. I inched forward, and the manÃ¢â‚¬â€he wore no uniform, and showed no other purpose except to keep prying eyes awayÃ¢â‚¬â€put a hand on my shoulder. I moved around him and kept taking photos at full zoom with my point-and-shoot, careful to keep the camera out of his reach.
When I pointed to the charred building and asked what happened, he said, "Nothing happened," and told me to leave again. Nothing to see here.
Around back, smoke kept pouring out one window. Punched out panes and frames lay at the foot of the dormitory, barbecued and thrown to the ground by the heat inside. Students and workers gawked in silence.
The smoke continued after the fire crews left. Residents of the wrecked building gathered around the crumbling doorway while a few pulled on galoshes and went inside to search out what remained of their belongings.
One fished out a soaked and soot-covered yearbook from his scorched and now water-logged dorm. He and his hall mates flipped through the heavy pages, laughing at the memories and that they survived. A few feet from their wrecked quarters, they were all smiles.
Others let their sorrow show. The women who'd escaped out the window were somber; one cried on a friend's shoulder. Some of the residents had large amounts of cash in their rooms; all of it burned. One man, who lost everything but the clothes he was wearing, stood dumbfounded at the scene. A department manager consoled him, then opened her purse and handed him a wad of 100-yuan notes, all she was carrying.