Kevin Shields woke up to a blaring noise overhead. It was 4:20 a.m., and the sound was not the alarm clock he had set.
Still tired, he walked downstairs, where he smelled smoke. When he got to the basement, he saw several small fires in the laundry room and at the back door. Sprinklers were showering the flames, so he ran back upstairs to call 9-1-1.
This was the scene at Beta Theta Pi on Friday morning at the second of two fires started in separate U fraternity houses. The first fire began in Pi Kappa Alpha around 4:13 a.m. All occupants were evacuated at both houses.
No one was injured in either incident, but the Salt Lake City Fire Department is investigating the fires as “intentionally set” arson attacks, according to Jasen Asay, the department’s spokesperson. Crews determined that an accelerant, such as gasoline, was used to start both fires.
There are currently no suspects, but crews are looking at neighborhood surveillance videos for evidence. Investigators are unsure whether the two incidents are connected, but they are looking into that possibility.
Asay said whoever started the fires entered the houses. In Pi Kappa Alpha, the arsonist likely entered the structure through an unlocked door near the fire escape. Crews were able to contain the flames to a third-floor game room, but there was “heavy damage.” Fraternity members will not be able to stay in the house overnight.
In the Beta Theta Pi house, Asay said the arsonist probably came in through an unlocked door leading to the basement. There was mostly water damage from the sprinklers in the room, which Utah Disaster Clean-Up helped clear later in the day.
Shields, president of the Beta fraternity, said the basement fire was about six inches away from the water heater and gas line, which could have caused more damage, had they caught.
“If the sprinklers didn’t get to it, we wouldn’t have much of a house left,” he said.
Shields considers the fraternity lucky because all of the residents who typically sleep in the basement rooms at Beta Theta Pi were out on vacation. Now he’s feeling a mix of emotions, but mainly “shock that somebody would do that,” referring to the arson suspicion.
Chase Fratto, president of Pi Kappa Alpha, could not be reached for comment. A cost estimate to the damage is unknown at this time.
If you have any information, the fire department is asking that you call (801) 799-3000.
The Utah Chronicle will update this story when more information is available.