• Photo slideshow: Fire at Scott Village dorms.
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A discarded cigarette on a second-floor balcony caused the residence-hall fire that displaced 42 students and destroyed their belongings, Omaha fire officials said Thursday.
Wednesday's two-alarm fire on the University of Nebraska at Omaha Pacific Street Campus first was thought to have started on the third floor, fire officials said, but investigators later determined the origin.
People living in UNO residence halls are not allowed to smoke inside their suites, on balconies or on patios, school officials said. Smoking is permitted 10 feet away from each building.
Students from the G dorm that caught fire started visiting a care center set up in Scott Village early Thursday. Counselors and residence life staff were waiting there to talk with students about the things they had in their apartments, worries about school assignments or missed shifts at work and the pressing question of where they will live through the end of the semester.
UNO officials' top priority is reducing anxiety about all those questions, because they have a plan for remedies, said Dan Shipp, UNO's associate vice chancellor for student affairs.
“We don't want students to worry,” Shipp said.
Jason Lynn said Thursday he thought the fire alarm was a drill until he saw smoke outside his third-floor window. He got out safely. Wednesday night, he went shopping for clothes and a few essentials, and he said he expects to live out of a plastic bin and stay with friends for a little while longer.
The 21-year-old junior already has heard from UNO staff about a new apartment in the same complex, and he's glad he and his roommates may be able to stay together.
After learning Thursday morning about the cigarette causing the fire, Lynn said the news is better than learning about a defect in the building, since his new home likely will be in a nearly identical dorm in Scott Village.
“But I've seen other people on other buildings smoking on their balconies, too,” Lynn said.
Shipp said professors will be flexible with the students who likely lost laptops and school assignments; Lynn's professors have already given him extensions.
Though university housing typically is so full it maintains a wait list, there is a little wiggle room, and Shipp expects to find new rooms on campus for all the students who want to stay. The university will start working immediately to replace necessities that students lost, regardless of whether they carried a renter's insurance policy.
“Whether it's through private funds or from the university directly, we're going to cover those students,” Shipp said.
UNO Chancellor John Christensen released a statement Thursday, thanking first responders and telling students that officials will continue to “do whatever we can to ease this very difficult situation.”
The fire was reported about 3:15 p.m. at 1512 S. 63rd Court.
The roof of Building G later collapsed. At the peak, about 50 Omaha firefighters battled the blaze. Five firetrucks and two aerial units were deployed.
One firefighter, Fire Apparatus Engineer Jim Pingel, injured his leg while fighting the fire. He was treated at a nearby hospital and released.
The fire spread quickly to the attic because of high winds, Fire Battalion Chief Tim McCaw said.
The second alarm was called in at 3:34 p.m. because of concerns about the fire possibly spreading to another residence hall. As a precaution, students in adjoining residences were evacuated.
McCaw said the third floor was destroyed. He said sprinklers in the building worked properly, though they weren't required in the attic.
The fire was declared under control at 5:35 p.m.
Scott Village, opened in 2003, has 10 residence buildings and with 48 bedrooms each. UNO officials accounted for all students living in Building G by late afternoon.
Although the blaze was centered on the third floor, the severely damaged building sustained heavy smoke and water damage throughout. All of the displaced students had found housing accommodations Wednesday night, said Erin Owen, a university spokeswoman.
Eight of the displaced students were freshmen on UNO's hockey team, said Dave Ahlers, UNO's sports information director. One track athlete also was displaced, he said.
Many stayed with friends or their parents; others found housing in empty apartments in residence halls, and some went to a nearby hotel, Owen said. Red Cross disaster relief was on-site Wednesday night and offers of help were pouring in.
“The community response has been very touching,” Owen said.
In his press release, Christensen said the offers included guest bedrooms, clothes, food and monetary donations. He encouraged people who want to help to send donations to the local Heartland chapter of the American Red Cross at http://www.redcross.org/ne/omaha.
Sarai Parker, an 18-year-old freshman from Omaha, was getting ready for work on the second floor of Building G when someone started yelling that there was a fire. Parker said that as she left the building, she encountered heavy smoke at the front entryway.
“I wish I knew it was going to be this bad,'' she said. “I would have taken more things with me.”
Henrique Torres, a Brazilian exchange student, has only been in Omaha about two months. He shared a unit with three American roommates on the first floor of Building G, and Torres, 20, wondered whether any of his water-logged belongings could be salvaged. His computer. His clothes. His passport.
“It was a shock, but I am all right,” he said. “I am glad (no students) got hurt.”
Eric Anderson, a senior who lived on the third floor of the building with Lynn and Ajay Medury, said he was in the UNO television office when he started getting text messages from his roommates and friends that the building was on fire.
He lost camera gear, a laptop, a hard drive and photos.
“All this stuff can be replaced by insurance, but losing those photos is kind of hard,” Anderson said. “The main thing, though, is I'm glad everybody is OK.”
Anderson, Lynn and Medury watched the surreal scene as firefighters trained a hose through one of their apartment windows.
They took photos as water shot through the top of the burned-out roof. They also noticed through the blown-out window that, somehow, one of Anderson's pictures of downtown Omaha still was hanging on the wall.
It was small consolation, since Anderson said he probably lost all of his hard drives holding the rest of his irreplaceable photographs.
World-Herald staff writers Emerson Clarridge, Rob White and Liz McCue contributed to this report.
UNO dorm fire
UNO junior Jason Lynn's firsthand account of the fire