Close call

The Argenta dorm explosion was a freak accident that could have been a tragedy

Just a month and a half into the summer holiday, the University of Nevada, Reno experienced what would surely have been the worst catastrophe in the school’s more than 100-year history.

On July 5, two explosions occurred at the Argenta and Nye Hall complex, destroying major parts of both buildings, but only injuring eight people, including six students and two firefighters, who had to be treated for minor cuts, abrasions and bruises. Steps toward collecting and returning any personal property lost in the chaos are also underway. Additionally, the university also offered counseling services for people to deal with the trauma and stress of the event.

According to the state inspector, the initial boiler explosion was an “isolated event” that has never occurred in Nevada before. The boiler’s failure severed a gas line, resulting in the second explosion that caused most of the structural damage. Most of the damage was contained within the first two floors of the building, and the center core “looked like a major earthquake” had occurred, according to the state inspector.

Thankfully, Argenta was built to code with fire-retardant material, preventing any uncontrolled blaze that would have made evacuation efforts more difficult and exacerbated the risk of injury and fatality. Post-incident inspections revealed that the buildings are not structurally compromised, and a lot of the damage to Argenta Hall is superficial.

“We count ourselves extremely fortunate that there weren’t any major injuries or fatalities,” said Marc Johnson, president of the university, at a press conference on July 9.

Although, both buildings have been decommissioned ahead of the fall semester, they should return to use once renovation efforts are complete. However, it remains unclear when both buildings may be recommissioned, with initial feasibility reports suggesting that it may take as long as two years.

“Both buildings for this year will not be used,” Johnson said.

Shutting down the buildings was the easy part. Finding new residential spaces for over 1,000 students with less than 50 days till the semester resumes has posed a greater challenge, but Dr. Shannon Ellis, vice-president for Student Services mentioned that the university has been trying to secure long-term leases with residential options in the area for about 1,300 beds.

The school’s official statement read: “this plan will provide students a safe and first-class opportunity to have a residence life experience, complete with a quality support infrastructure, which is essential for these students’ success.”

While the statement reads as a vague guarantee, there are limited options available for such a wide-scale relocation in a safe, secure, proximal location. On July 19, UNR issued a statement saying that displaced students would be housed in the west tower of the Circus Circus casino, which in 2017, also served as a temporary home to students who couldn’t immediately access their accommodation at Identity Reno Apartments after construction work delayed move-in. The casino’s “Sky Tower” will be temporarily renamed “Wolf Pack Tower,” and students will require keycards to access the building, which will house only students and retain round-the-clock security services.

UNR is also planning to construct temporary dining halls near the newly completed Great Basin Hall to serve students, with campus transport providing a link between downtown and the school grounds.

The Artemesia building, which was initially closed for inspection after the accident, has been deemed safe enough for university staff to resume work, and Virginia Street has been reopened for use after being closed for four days in the aftermath. Damaged areas exposed to public view in both buildings will be wrapped in protective material to prevent stray debris from injuring nearby pedestrians.

For the people who experienced the explosion as it happened, it mostly felt surreal. Some thought an earthquake was happening, others thought it was a regular fire; one student thought someone had slammed the doors a little too hard. Fortunately, they all managed to escape the damage due to a quick response from the Fire Department as well as the initial boiler explosion which forced an evacuation of the building, meaning that UNR’s student body, while a little scattered, remains whole.