Feature Stories Campus Events All Stories

W&L Safety Officer Praised for Quick Action in Pi Phi Fire

In the six months since Jamie Brown joined Washington and Lee’s Public Safety Office last September, he’d never spent a longer — or more critical — seven minutes.

As one member of the four-person security detail on duty in the early hours of last Thursday morning, March 12, Brown had been conducting his rounds as usual. He’d just checked the Pi Kappa Phi house on East Washington Street and was across the parking lot at Kappa Sigma when he got the call: a fire at Pi Phi.

It was 4:17 a.m.

Brown sprinted across the parking lot, where he saw the flames crawling up the front of the three-story brick-and-frame house.

Trained as a member of Lexington’s Volunteer Fire Department, Brown immediately entered the building to check the house director’s apartment on the ground floor. He found the apartment empty and discovered that the house director, Geneva Davenport, had already managed to leave.

Back in front of the burning house, Brown saw the fraternity members pointing to the third floor and shouting that they thought someone was still in the building.

It was now 4:19 a.m.

“By then, it was all adrenalin,” said Brown, a Rockbridge High School graduate who had spent the past four years working as an officer at the Rockbridge County Jail.

Just as he was figuring his next move, Brown saw Sgt. Scott Bedell, of the Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Department, getting out of his patrol car and heading up the hill toward the scene.

“There must have been an angel,” Brown said. “I had worked as a sheriff’s reserve deputy and knew Sgt. Bedell. He was coming toward the building and hearing what I was hearing about someone still on the third floor. We made eye contact, and I said, ‘Come on, I know the way in.’”

So Brown and Bedell headed back into the building by the side entrance, past the front door where the fire was now centered and up the stairs. Since Brown knew the layout of the house, he led the way, pausing at a coat rack to grab T-shirts for himself and Bedell and finding a water cooler to douse the shirts with water and put them over their mouths.

“I’d gone into burning buildings before,” Brown said, “but I’d always gone in with the proper gear. This was just what we could find, and it had to do.”

Once they got to the third floor and found a student still sleeping on a couch, Bedell led the student toward safety while Brown swept the remaining rooms.

“I think there were two more rooms on the floor, and I went through and patted the beds to make sure no one was there,” Brown said.

Bedell, meantime, had gotten the student to the first floor and narrowly prevented him from exiting into the flames.

“The student was just about to go out that front door, which would have brought a burst of oxygen into the building and caused a huge explosion,” said Brown. “He really saved him twice.”

By the time Brown made it back out, the first fire trucks were on the scene.

It was 4:24 a.m. Seven minutes had passed—the longest seven minutes Brown could ever remember.

“It felt like an eternity,” said Brown, the father of two boys, ages three and 15 months.

Several days later, Bedell wrote a two-page letter of commendation on Brown’s behalf, saying that his actions represented “a superior level of selflessness and dedication to duty.”

Bedell wrote that many people deserved credit for averting a tragedy — from the students passing by who called 911 to the house director to the fraternity members and to all the emergency responders.

However, Bedell added, “in performing his role, Officer Brown did so without the aid of expensive equipment, bright lights, elaborate gear, strong backup support and most importantly before the outcome was certain. I hope the Washington and Lee community will recognize Officer Brown for his actions for keeping his promise to safeguard the students and the campus community.”

In addition to Brown, the other W&L officers on the night shift were Sgt. Tony Stinnett and Officers Brian Watts and Kevin Booze. Denise Neuhs was the dispatcher.

“They all deserve credit, as does everyone who responded,” said Brown. “Everyone played a critical role.”

Mike Young, the director of public safety at W&L, said that while the list of people who provided invaluable support was long given the circumstances, he believes the actions of Brown and Bedell are as heroic as he could imagine.

“When I talked with Jamie about his actions, he simply said that he was doing his job,” said Young. “But that hardly begins to give proper credit to what happened that morning.”

W&L President Kenneth P. Ruscio, who was on the scene of the fire and was apprised of Brown’s role, said that Brown exemplified the best qualities of the University’s staff. “It has always been the case that the University’s staff have the highest standards of professionalism and are invested in the lives of our students. What Jamie did at the Pi Phi house is the clearest example of those qualities that I can imagine,” Ruscio said.

Members of the Pi Phi house will spend the remainder of the winter and spring terms living in the Kappa Sigma house. All indications are that the Pi Phi building will be ready for occupancy by the beginning of the fall 2009 term.