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Elisabeth C. Miller Library Fire

Miller Horticultural Library fire damage

The Center for Urban Horticulture was extensively damaged in an early morning fire on May 21, 2001.

The fire started in a faculty member’s office in the building wing adjacent to the Miller Library. The FBI and Police spent May 21 and 22 investigating the fire and at a late afternoon news conference on May 22nd announced that they had determined that the fire was arson.

Initially access to the library was restricted since the FBI was concerned that there might be some relevant evidence in the library. However, later in the morning of May 21, after the Fire Department did air monitoring for toxic fumes, we were given access to the vault and allowed to remove the rare book collection that was not damaged, although there was water on the floor and the books strongly smell of smoke. The rare book collection was moved to the Allen Library because of the need to house it in a secure location.

After we moved the rare book collection, the Fire Department let us move the books on the north side of the library. We were able to use tables in the Northwest Horticultural Society Hall (NHS Hall) a few feet from the library to sort and evaluate the books. Apart from some soot there was not damage to these materials. (The Fire Department had covered the book stacks with plastic, which helped protect them.) Volunteers wiped the soot from the books.

Because of the danger of mold developing due to high humidity and unseasonably warm temperatures, the FBI, Fire Department, and Police agreed to the removal of the remainder of the collection, which was on the south side of the building closest to where the fire originated. On May 22nd, firemen removed the remainder of the collection, including contents of a storage room. Some of the materials were dry but others got wet.

The University has contracted with Superior Cleaning and Restoration, a local emergency fire and water damage service. Superior subcontracted with Hansen Brothers to help with the collection removal. Most of the dry books have received a second cleaning with dry sponges and have been packed and delivered to Superior’s warehouse. The books will receive an ozone treatment at Superior, which should remove about 80% of the smoke smell. The wet books are being frozen, freeze dried, and cleaned. Document Reprocessors of San Francisco is helping with this effort. All library materials were removed from NHS Hall by mid-day on May 23rd.

It is quite remarkable that more of the collection was not damaged. As you can see in the picture above, there is water on the floor of the library, the carpet is soaked, and some of the ceiling has collapsed. University Libraries staff assisted Miller Library staff and CUH staff, students, and volunteers with the recovery.

Gary Menges, Librarian Emeritus