Students
Fire damage in a student house on the Warmoesstraat Photo from UKrant archives

Student houses often a fire hazard

Suddenly your room is on fire

Fire damage in a student house on the Warmoesstraat Photo from UKrant archives
Poor maintenance, disabled smoke alarms, and exits blocked by trash or bikes are all severe fire hazards in student houses. When a fire does break out, it can get very ugly, very quickly. ‘I was thinking: am I going to die like this?
3 April om 11:08 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 3 April 2024
om 11:53 uur.
April 3 at 11:08 AM.
Last modified on April 3, 2024
at 11:53 AM.
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Door Eoin Gallagher

3 April om 11:08 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 3 April 2024
om 11:53 uur.
Avatar photo

By Eoin Gallagher

April 3 at 11:08 AM.
Last modified on April 3, 2024
at 11:53 AM.

She was just sitting on her couch, drinking coffee, and talking to her mum on the phone before going to the UMCG. A normal Wednesday morning, until she realised her ceiling was turning black. 

‘I opened the door to the hallway and there was smoke everywhere’, says Sinzianna Karina Buda, a Romanian biomedical sciences student. She walked down the hall and saw the roof was beginning to crack. That is when she started to scream: ‘Fire! Fire!’

In February, a fire broke out in a first floor apartment at the Papengang. The building, which housed around thirty students, was filled with smoke, and one person went to hospital with smoke inhalation. Even though it wasn’t without issues, it was a good place to live, says Sinzianna. ‘It is a crack house, but it is our home.’

At risk

Fires in student houses are not uncommon occurrences in Groningen. A fire at the Burchtstraat surprised students coming home from a Vindicat party in May last year. A malfunctioning air cleaner caused a small fire in a student house at the Kraneweg a month later. The student complex at the Vrydemalaan saw two fires in 2022 due to a short circuit in the fuse box. That same year, there was another fire in a student room at the Westersingel. 

Even more serious were fires in 2010 at the Oude Ebbingestraat and in 2017 at the Visserstraat, which both saw a student lose their life.

Five minutes later, our whole house would have been on fire

Student houses are particularly at risk, because they often suffer from poor maintenance and neither landlords nor residents see fire safety as a major priority. Students, for example, have a tendency to leave trash or bikes in hallways, blocking a quick exit. 

And so there’s good reason that the fire department is alert to safety in student houses. In October, it completed checks on five hundred of them. 

The results were about 50/50, according to Stefan van Hussel, a fire safety supervisor. The most common issues: no smoke alarms, blocked exits, and extension cords with too many devices connected, which is a fire hazard. The Papengang wasn’t checked though: since it housed both students and non-students, it doesn’t qualify as a student house. 

Trapped

When Sinzianna discovered the fire, she ran back to her room on the third floor and called the fire department in a panic. By now, neighbour Enrica Arbia, who studies fine art, had woken up to the noise in the apartment next door. She was about to put her headphones in, roll over, and go back to sleep, but then she smelled something weird and got up to investigate. ‘I didn’t even open the door to the emergency stairs, because there were fumes coming out’, she says. She was trapped.

After the fire in the Warmoesstraat

House fires like this can come on fast. A normal day, a normal moment, can turn into a dangerous situation unexpectedly. That is something Brendan de Souza, an energy and environmental science student, experienced two years ago. He came home for lunch and smelled smoke. ‘I thought that maybe the neighbours were cooking something.’ 

His roommate smelled it too and Brendan heard glass breaking and shattering behind her door. ‘So I opened it and one side of the room was completely on fire. Her desk, her curtains, one side of the wall.’

He and another roommate put the fire out with buckets of water. Only then they called the fire department. ‘They told us that five minutes later, our whole house would have been on fire.’ 

Candle

Physics student Melav Salih also found out how fast things can go wrong. In 2021, after a day of drinking, she woke up to shouting from downstairs. The curtains in her housemate’s room had caught fire from a candle.

Those ten minutes felt like an eternity

One fire extinguisher was half empty, the other was out of date and none of the smoke alarms were functioning. She and a roommate rushed to alert their downstairs neighbours and everyone made it outside. ‘But the fire basically took over the whole building’, Melav says. 

The street was closed off and all of the surrounding buildings were evacuated. The students lost all their possessions, including their passports. The municipality put them up in  hotel rooms for twenty-four hours; after that they had to find new accommodation on their own. ‘But luckily no one was hurt.’ 

Broken window

In the Papengang fire, no one was seriously hurt, but it could easily have ended differently. Enrica’s apartment was on the third floor at the back of the building, so she couldn’t escape through her window. She started knocking on doors and ended up in Sinzianna’s room with other residents. ‘I was just on the phone with the fire fighters telling them that we had no way out whatsoever and that if they didn’t come quick we were going to burn’, she recalls.  

When they did come, ten minutes later, they broke Sinzianna’s window, and helped the trapped residents down safely. ‘But those ten minutes felt like an eternity’, says Sinzianna. ‘I was thinking: am I going to die like this? Am I going to pass out from the smoke or am I going to burn?’

The students were offered three months rent-free living in one of the other apartments from rental agency Solide that manages the building. Going back is out of the question: Papengang is now uninhabitable.

Sinzianna went back later to pick up some possessions. ‘That image of the broken window mentally shattered me into a million pieces’, she says.

Investigation

The students blame Solide’s management of the building. ‘Electrical circuits would cut out frequently’, Sinzianna says. ‘I called the company about that and I feel that is the cause of the fire.’ The residents also say that there was a lack of smoke alarms and that they had previously complained that the building was wide open to homeless people and drug users. 

I still have that fear response if something smells a bit weird

An investigation into the cause of the fire is being carried out by the insurance company, says Solide representative Alisa Gotlieb. ‘We were not aware of any electrical problems’, she says. ‘And we don’t think that was the cause of the fire.’ 

Gotlieb also says every room has a smoke alarm when someone moves in. And even though Sinzianna says she never had one, Gotlieb claims everyone got an email in 2022 asking about it. ‘For three or four years we have been working very hard to improve this building for every tenant’, she says.

Mandatory

But while it is still unclear how the fire started, what is absolutely clear is that fire alarms save lives. ‘That is something the fire department sees every time’, says Van Hussel. 

Smoke detectors have been mandatory in the Netherlands since 2022 and landlords are legally responsible for making sure they are installed and for replacing the batteries. Still, stresses Van Hussel: ‘The person living in a house has the most influence over how safe it is.’

Brendan’s house did not have any smoke alarms when it caught fire. However, he will never again go without them. ‘I didn’t really think about it too much before. But now it’s one of my main concerns’, he says.

Even though the fire at his house happened two years ago, he is still alert and can be thrown back into panic mode quickly. ‘I still have that fear response if something smells a bit weird.’

Sinzianna is trying to get back to studying, but the event is still on her mind. Even when everything is quiet, she can still hear the sirens, she says. ‘I am trying to hold it together as best as I can. I have fewer nightmares now. I don’t dream I am burning anymore.’

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