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The suspect for the Mayer Hall arson, who set fire to plastic red cups and hand sanitizer, is still at-large.

Credit: Carson Kahoe

In the early hours of Aug. 29, a student was caught lighting plastic red cups and hand sanitizer on the fifth floor of Mayer Hall. The fire tripped a smoke alarm, and the arsonist escaped among the crowds of students who evacuated the dorm.

The suspect, a white male with blond hair, is still at-large, and the investigation, coordinated between Penn Police and the Philadelphia Fire Department, is still ongoing. 

“We are hot on his trail. He likes it hot and so do we,” Vice President for Public Safety Maureen Rush said. “He would be better off coming forward and taking his medicine.”

After happening on the scene, a female student yelled at the suspect, at which point he dropped the cups and the hand sanitizer spread to a wooden door, the Division of Public Safety said. Although the fire was quickly extinguished with a water bottle, Chief of Fire and Emergency Services Eugene Janda said the situation remained dangerous. 

“Even though the fire was small it would have quickly turned into a larger fire. It is troubling because the corridor is a common egress path," he said.

Rush also shared Janda’s concern for student safety.

“We are very active in keeping our students safe and we don’t appreciate when somebody tries to put them in danger,” she said.

The concern for fire safety is significant. After a fire in a dorm at Seton Hall University in 2000, which killed 3 and injured 67, a movement grew among universities to install sprinklers in residential halls. In the 15 years since the Seton Hall fire, which was started by two people playfully lighting things on fire, 118 people have died in on and off-campus fires.

Afterwards, Penn’s Board of Trustees approved a $32 million retrofit for all of school’s sleeping quarters, including in affiliated fraternity and sorority housing. In 2005, within a month of the renovation, a kitchen fire started but was contained by the new sprinklers. Smoke and water damaged many rooms but around 40 people’s lives were saved.

“I talked to the trustees after the fire and let them know the return on investment: priceless," Rush said. 

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