Small fire breaks out in robotics supply room, classes moved and robotics meeting cancelled


Nicole Chen

A small fire broke out in the robotics room supply closet last night, immediately contained by the upper school fire suppression system. Computer science department chair Dr. Eric Nelson’s academic classes today met in Nichols 309 (physics teacher Scott Pflaumer’s room) and in other locations in Nichols.

Due to a small fire that broke out in the robotics room supply closet last night, which was immediately contained by the upper school fire suppression system, computer science department chair Dr. Eric Nelson’s academic classes today met in Nichols 309 (physics teacher Scott Pflaumer’s room) and in other locations in Nichols.

The Harker Robotics’ club meeting originally scheduled for this afternoon was cancelled.

No one was in the robotics lab, Nichols 314, at the time of the small fire, which occurred sometime between 10 and 10:30 p.m. No one was injured.

“We had security on site, trying to figure out what was happening,” assistant head of school Greg Lawson said. “I got a phone call from [maintenance director J.R.] Del Alto and came over. Not that I did anything, but just to get a sense of what was going on. I sent some emails to some of the administration to let them know what was going on and to get an assessment of how we want to operate today.”

Current assessments indicate that Dr. Nelson’s room will be usable again tomorrow. The robotics lab is off-limits to students, pending an assessment by the forensics team and insurance company.

“All that we’re doing right now is drying the floors and finding out where Dr. Nelson can teach,” science department chair Anita Chetty said. “We are concerned about the robotics lab and how the team will continue on with their preparation for the competition.”

The robot that the robotics team used in their record-breaking season last year and that they planned to use in their next competition on Oct. 15 was submerged in water from the sprinkler system.

The exact cause of the fire has not yet been determined, but initial assessments indicate it was caused by a charging battery.

According to Dr. Nelson, there were multiple types of batteries in the closet, including standard and lithium ion. A forensics team will determine the exact cause, and the insurance company’s assessment will indicate the exact damage.

“We [have] to wait until insurance comes,” Del Alto said. “They’re going to check the room where it happened, and once they get the documentation done, we’re going to check the [sprinkler] head that went off.”

The fire alarm went off and the fire suppression system immediately extinguished it, limiting its spread to a portion of the closet. Water from the sprinklers flooded the supply room, robotics lab, the adjoining room Nichols 312 of Dr. Nelson, Nichols atrium and the room of physics teacher Lisa Radice.

“The water from the closet when they opened the closet went through the atrium and came into my room,” Radice said. “All that water came out and spilled out into the atrium and somehow got under my door into my room.”

The upper school facilities team, including maintenance director J.R. Del Alto, responded to the fire and stayed on campus until approximately 3 a.m. today. To prevent mold and increase air movement, they drilled holes underneath cabinets, creating a smell of wood smoke in the Nichols atrium and lower level classrooms.

Dryers and dehumidifiers are running in both classrooms affected, as well as the Nichols atrium and the entrance to Nichols auditorium, to prevent mold.

The last fire on campus occurred last month in the parking lot when lightning struck a tree.

The last robotics-related fire occurred approximately 13 years ago in Main Hall when a competition robot caught fire.

After determining the cause and assessing damage, administration will meet to discuss fire response protocol.

“We’re going to find out how we should respond or the practices that we undertake in the lab that we might change because of the fire, or [if the fire was] a random accident,” Lawson said.

Additional reporting by copy editor Anjay Saklecha and reporters Kaidi Dai, Michael Eng, Aditya Singhvi and Srinath Somasundaram.