Small fire on Interstate 280 disrupts afternoon classes

No fire alarms heard, faculty and staff go door-to-door to evacuate buildings


Nina Gee

San Jose firefighters fight the bush fires behind Nichols Hall. Students and teachers were evacuated to Davis Field after a small fire broke out on I-280.

by Vijay Bharadwaj, News Editor

Upper school students and faculty evacuated campus buildings today after a small fire broke out before 2 p.m. at the highway wall separating the campus from Interstate 280 by Nichols Hall.

Because fire alarms did not go off in Nichols, Manzanita, Dobbins, Main or Shah, teachers and the upper school facilities crew had to alert classes in person to evacuate.

“We pulled two [fire] alarms,” chemistry teacher Dr. David Casso, whose classes meet in Nichols 326, said. “[The fire] had come over the fence and was burning bushes on our side of the fence and was threatening the sheds. At that point, [teachers] ran through the buildings evacuating classrooms, and we got everybody out.”

Students and faculty in Nichols Hall evacuated the building, and teachers who knew of the fire alerted those in other buildings, following Harker emergency protocol.

Upper School Head Samuel “Butch” Keller and other campus personnel quickly came over to Nichols to assist in clearing teachers and students from their classrooms.

“Mr. [Andrew] Irvine ran into our classroom, telling us that we needed to evacuate immediately because there was a fire on 280,” said Eleanor Xiao (12), who was in upper school science department chair Anita Chetty’s room for Honors Human Anatomy and Physiology. “We didn’t hear any fire alarms go off in Nichols.”

San Jose firefighters arrived within minutes at the scene of the blaze, which began near the back of Nichols Hall at the barrier between I-280 and school grounds. A plume of light gray smoke rose above the back of the building, where the roof of one of two storage sheds had caught fire.

“I first noticed the fire when I came outside to talk to my manager,” custodian Johnny Lockett, one of the first people to see the fire, said. “I saw one of the teachers saying, ‘Fire! Get everyone out!’ So I went through Main and Dobbins, knocking on teachers’ doors to get the teachers and students out to safety.”

Upper school Dean of Students Kevin Williamson made an announcement on the campuswide speaker system shortly after the fire was discovered, telling students, faculty and staff to evacuate to Davis Field. A few minutes later, students heard Williamson over the loudspeaker again, saying the fire had been extinguished and students could safely return to class.

According to Nina Gee (10), sophomore Rohan Sonecha was the first person to notice the fire as he was returning to sixth period chemistry in Dr. Smriti Koodanjeri’s classroom on the second floor of Nichols.

“I could hear the wall burning,” Amla Rashingkar (10), the second student to see the fire, said. “I could smell the vines burning on the wall.”

San Jose Fire Department investigators are looking into the cause of the fire. Traffic on I-280 backed up as a result of the flames and smoke on the highway shoulder.

Harker Aquila is investigating why campus building fire alarms did not sound.