A year later, deadly blaze recalled

Phi Kappa Theta rebuilds with brother in mind

The Daily Mining Gazette
Aug. 22, 2003; pp 1,8A

HOUGHTON — In the year since a devastating fire took the life of 20-year-old Andrew Maas, members of the Phi Kappa Theta fraternity have rallied to rebuild their house and their lives.

“For some people it was rough; we had quite a few brothers who really had a tough time just keeping on going after something like that,” said Chet Craw, president of the Michigan Tech University fraternity.

The fire broke out in the early-morning hours of Aug. 13, 2002. Investigators believe the fire started when Maas left a stove unattended in the kitchen. The blaze destroyed the fraternity’s three-story Ruby Avenue house. Four people escaped, but Maas, an engineering student from downstate Holland, was trapped on the third floor and died.

Craw said fraternity members struggled with the loss.

“I think with a tragedy like this everyone takes a step back and looks at what’s really important,” he said.
Maas’ death still haunts the firefighters who battled the blaze.

“It was a terrible, terrible fire and we pray it never happens again,” said Robert “Bubba” Megowen of the Houghton Volunteer Fire Department.

Megowen, an 18-year department veteran, knew the fire was serious when the dispatcher said the century-old house was in flames.

“The second they said the building was engulfed, it was the fastest I got to the firehouse in years,” he said.

Megowen, firefighter Dwayne Hokenson and about four others were on the first truck to arrive. As the men were strapping on air packs, Hokenson said they could see the blaze was out of control.

“You could see the flames at the top of Garnet Street,” he said.

Hokenson and Megowen tried repeatedly to enter the building while others tried to douse the flames. Hokenson said heat and smoke kept the pair from getting too far into the house.

“The heat was so intense you’d just go in a little ways and then you’d have to back out,” Hokenson said.

As firefighters fought the blaze, fraternity members who escaped said they couldn’t account for Maas.

“I was sick as I talked to the guys,” Megowen said.

About three hours later — at about 9:10 a.m. — Maas' body was found in a bedroom near his sleeping compartment, also known as a pod.

“That was an irreplaceable loss — that’s the way it felt,” Craw said. “Obviously, you can rebuild the house, but you can’t replace a brother.”

Fraternity member Dan Limberg expressed similar sentiments.

“There are some things in life that you never forget and some people you’ll never forget and that’s how I feel about this,” he said.

After the fire, the community rallied to raise money for the fraternity, and in April, both active members and alumni broke ground on a new $690,000 house.

“Our goal is to get the guys in the house (by mid-October), get the guys in a suitable house and we’re definitely going to have that for them,” said project manager Mike Carpenter, of Marquette-based STS Consultants, Ltd.

Carpenter, a Phi Kappa Theta alumnus, said several fraternity alumni will put the finishing touches on the building to help cut costs.

“It’s another great way for people who loved the house to get involved and help the reconstruction of the house,” he said.

Carpenter said the new house incorporates lessons learned from the fire. There are built-in sprinklers and other safety devices. The old house did not have sprinklers.

“We lost our house, we lost our brother,” he said. “We’re smarter because of it.”

The new house won’t have pods. Although it’s unknown whether Maas was sleeping in his pod at the time of the fire, officials have said they are a safety hazard (see related story).

“They want the flexibility to build whatever they want, but they understand that they shouldn’t be building enclosed pods,” Carpenter said.

Craw said the experience of the past year, including reconstruction, has brought the fraternity closer together.

“There’s so many generations of brothers working on this,” he said. “It’s a great thing.”

As a Houghton city councilman, Megowen said he’s working to improve fire safety codes.

“I do not want to take another body out of another building,” he said.