Fire breaks out at UA Student Center Friday, causing building to be evacuated for 30 minutes

Jacob Ritondo, Race and Identity Reporter

A small fire broke out around noon on Friday inside the UA Student Center, briefly causing an evacuation of the building, after a portable battery charger caught fire inside a bag. The fire occurred while the Alabama Scholastic Press Association was hosting an event in the building. The building reopened in around 30 minutes after the Tuscaloosa Fire Rescue ventilated it sufficiently. 

“At 12:11:30 Tuscaloosa Fire Rescue responded to a fire at [the] UA Ferguson Center,” Tuscaloosa Fire Rescue Chief Randy Smith said, using the previous name of the UA Student Center. “The investigator determined this was an accidental fire.” 

Smith said the cause of the fire was the combustion of a battery pack charger, which a visitor to the campus had in their backpack. The visitor told the fire department that the battery pack was over four years old, although it is unclear exactly what type of battery it was that exploded as the fire damaged it extensively.  

One of the most common types of batteries is the lithium variety. According to ThoughtCo, they contain small metal fragments suspended in a fluid that may sometimes puncture the interior walls of the battery, causing the lithium inside to react violently with water in the air and produce high heat or even fire. This can also happen if the battery itself is punctured. Additionally, lithium batteries may catch fire if the heat of the contents inside reaches such an extreme that the battery explodes from pressure buildup. 

Smith said the flames were already extinguished by the time the fire department arrived on the scene. 

Karah Schneider and Vessie Simmons, both of whom work at the Alabama Credit Union branch within the Student Center only steps away from where the bag caught fire, witnessed the flames. 

Schneider was working when she heard a girl scream.  

“It was almost like I couldn’t believe my eyes. … It was like a ball of fire was being thrown around,” Schneider said. 

“We [saw] people run, but we thought maybe a dog got loose. … She [Schneider] went out and she was like, ‘Oh, my God! Something’s on fire,’” Simmons said.  

Schneider then noticed that a boy who was standing next to the backpack began trying to smother the flames with a jacket, as bystanders started recording the scene. At this point, Schneider said, the fire alarm had already gone off. 

“Another student sprung into action. Whoever he is, he’s great. But he yanked the fire extinguisher off the wall and put it out,” Schneider said.  

Smith confirmed that the man extinguished the fire prior to the Tuscaloosa Fire Rescue’s arrival. 

According to Shane Dorrill, assistant director of communications for the University, the building was briefly evacuated while Tuscaloosa Fire Rescue ventilated it. At 12:48 p.m., the University sent out an alert via email and text announcing that the Student Center had been reopened. 

Smith said no injuries or damage to the Student Center were reported.