Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Dedicating the Res Club Memorial at Cornell

After 52 years, Cornell has recognized the nine members of the university community who died in the Cornell Heights Residential Club fire—eight students and one faculty member—with a well-designed memorial placed centrally on the campus between Sage Chapel and Day Hall.

One member of our class, Anne Catherine McCormic ‘67, was among the deceased, and another, Sherry Carr ’67 ’70 MILR, delivered one of two reflections at the dedication ceremony at the memorial site on October 4. Both were senior women, who resided on the second, which was the top, floor of the Res Club.

Most people at Cornell then only were aware that 60 freshmen were living on the two lower floors: they had been recruited for the Ford Foundation-funded Six-Year-PhD program. But women in our class who learned about the housing opportunity, at a time when living on campus was severely limited for undergraduate women, occupied the rooms on the top floor, along with several female graduate students.

All, except for Anne McCormic, managed to be rescued by first responders and other residents who used ladders to reach the windows after those trying to escape punched out the screens. Those living on the lower floors either got out through a back door (on the lowest level) or through the windows on the first floor at street level.

The Tompkins County District Attorney’s Office has never initiated criminal proceedings in the case. Until recently, Cornell University did not allow any scrutiny of its archives and records relating to the fire. Our class’s 50th Reunion Book, published in 2017, featured an article by one of the ’67 survivors, Judith Adler Hellman, who recalled what happened that night and also analyzed what has been described as a cover-up by Cornell. Subsequently, the New York Times ran a long piece examining what it could find out about the case.

Cornell President Martha Pollack delivered opening remarks at the dedication of the memorial, acknowledging that “[F]or too long, all of you have felt unheard and your memories unacknowledged. No one can take away the pain of what you experienced. But what we can do is hear your stories and become accustomed, become the custodians of your memories with this memorial, which will remain here in the heart of campus for as long as the University stands.”

In her reflections, Sherry Carr described McCormic, who was one of her roommates and was enrolled in what was then the School of Home Economics during her time at Cornell, as a “dynamo” and observed that “earlier administrations” had refused to recognize the need to honor those who were lost in the fire or resolve the issue of its origin.

The case was complicated by the University’s admitted negligence in failing to observe fire codes in the building, which lacked fire doors, sprinklers, and other standard protective requirements. Subsequent investigations by the New York State Police, fire marshals, and other authorities have reached inconsistent conclusions as to whether an accelerant, which is a fire-causing substance, was detected on the Res Club premises.

One speaker at the reception in the Straight Browsing Library, which followed the dedication, mentioned the name of a former Cornell student whom many of the survivors, and their families and friends, believe started the fire and is living under an assumed name. Others have said that they don’t expect any legal cases—civil or criminal—to be brought unless the District Attorney’s Office ever decides to proceed or Cornell issues a finding regarding the fire’s cause.

Both of these possible outcomes are regarded as unlikely to occur, although the District Attorney’s Office regards the fire as an open case.

The memorial reads “In memory of nine vibrant and brilliant young scholars who died in a tragic fire at the Cornell Heights Residential Club on April 5, 1967,” then lists the names of the deceased and concludes: “Their families, friends, classmates, colleagues, and the entire Cornell community promise to never forget them.”

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