Murray State Knew of Hard-to-Hear Alarms Before Fire

Murray State University knew that fire alarms in Hester Hall sometimes could not be heard, a year before an arson fire in September 1998 killed a student, documents show.

The university did not request repairs until mid-1998, and they were not carried out until after the fire, according to records that were part of a lawsuit settled this summer against Murray State.

Michael Minger, a sophomore from Niceville, Fla., died of smoke inhalation in the fire. Another student, Michael Priddy, suffered burns and brain injuries in the blaze. Police said the fire was intentionally set.

A lawsuit brought by Minger's mother, Gail Minger, alleged that Murray State had violated the Americans With Disabilities Act by denying her son permission to live off campus because he suffered from mild learning disabilities and could become disoriented.

The university reached a $200,000 settlement with Minger in July.

Gail Minger said Murray State should have disclosed to students and parents that the school considered the alarm system obsolete a year before the fire, yet did not make the improvements until after her son's death.

``I am still haunted by the many lies and the knowledge this university had of serious safety issues days, months and even years before Michael died in their dormitory,'' Gail Minger said.

In an interview with The Courier-Journal of Louisville last week, Murray State general counsel John Rall said no evidence proves low alarm volumes in Hester Hall contributed to Michael Minger's death and Priddy's injury. Rall said sprinklers may not have saved Minger from the fire.

``Would sprinklers have made any difference when Michael Minger opened his door?'' Rall said. ``By that time, God knows what kind of oven that place was.''

Police say someone doused carpeting with gasoline and set it on fire. Records show that at least five students interviewed by state police or insurance investigators said they did not hear the alarm and instead were roused by roommates or commotion in the hall.

Rall said the university requested money from the state to upgrade the alarms. Records show the state approved the money the day of the fire.

After the fire, Murray State embarked on and has completed a $4 million program to install sprinklers in its dorms and has upgraded fire alarm systems.

Minger's death also prompted broad changes in fire safety at Kentucky's public universities. The schools spent $25 million to install dorm sprinklers, and a new law requires campuses to report fires and crimes immediately and gives the state fire marshal jurisdiction over college campuses.

Murray State denied any fault in Michael Minger's death, and Rall said the fire alarm levels were not a factor in the decision to settle the case. Gail Minger initially sought $3 million to $4 million.

Gail Minger provided the newspaper with copies of memorandums, which were disclosed to her as part of her lawsuit. The school had refused to make the memos public because they are exempt from Kentucky's Open Records Law.

Memos show that a year before the fire, the school's assistant director for environmental safety and health, Larry Anderson, wrote to housing director Paula Hulick to warn that fire horns could not be heard in residential halls.