Hookah cause of Sigma Chi fire

If illegal substances are found, members will answer to a committee.
An unidentified Columbia firefighter investigates a fire near a third floor of the Sigma Chi fraternity house Sunday night. The cause is still under investigation, but the fire is believed to have caused upwards of $5,000 in damage.

The Sigma Chi Fraternity house caught fire Sunday night after a hookah pipe was left unattended.

Columbia Fire Department crews responded to calls that a commercial structure at 500 S. College Ave. was on fire around 8:41 p.m., a news release from the department stated.

Firefighters found smoldering debris around a window on the third floor of the house and witnesses told firefighters a window in room 305 had caught fire.

CFD Battalion Chief Steven Sapp said a smoking device was left unattended in the room and charcoal being used to heat the device ignited the wood trim on the window.

The Columbia Police Department found a hookah pipe, a homemade pipe, a wooden dugout and a 4-inch glass jar with marijuana stems at the house, Columbia Police Lt. Scott Young said.

CPD confiscated the smoking materials after the fire and are testing them for residue, but the people who were using the device said they were smoking flavored tobacco.

Fraternity members said they weren't sure whether a marijuana use was involved but said charcoal was the cause of the fire.

"We do know there was a charcoal on the windowsill," Sigma Chi Vice President Tony Wirkus said.

Fire crews used a small amount of water to extinguish the fire.

Fraternity member Dominic DeFeo tried to extinguish the fire with water but wasn't able to, the release stated. Another fraternity member tried to extinguish the fire with a fire extinguisher but was also unsuccessful.

Sapp said fire investigators have ruled the fire as accidental.

"It was certainly unintentional," Sapp said.

Sapp said no one was in the room when the fire was started and the smoking device was left on the windowsill.

Fire crews have estimated the damage to be around $5,000, the release stated.

Between 25 and 30 fraternity members and houseguests were evacuated during the fire and there were no injuries.

Sigma Chi spokesman Kyle Hertel said the fire looked worse than it was.

"The fire started outward and moved inward so it looked bigger than it was," Heutel said.

No arrests have been made but the police department is investigating what the people involved in the incident were smoking.

Young said the people involved could face a city charge if they were found with a small amount of marijuana or they could face state or felony charges if they were found with a large amount of marijuana or had prior arrests for marijuana possession.

Wirkus said no smoking is allowed in the house and the people involved would go before the judiciary committee if they were found to have marijuana. The judicial committee includes Wirkus and a member of each class in the fraternity.

Sapp said although this type of smoking device being the cause of a fire is unique for the department, discarded smoking materials are one of the three leading national causes of fires.

"Fires with discarded smoking materials are not uncommon," Sapp said.

The Sigma Chi house was also the site of a fire in May 1999. Freshman Dominic Passantino died in that fire.

That fire was on the same floor as the fire Sunday night but the two incidents weren't related, the release stated.

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