Ceiling tiles shook in the student cafeteria as murky black water poured out from behind a closed door in the basement below.
It was 12:43 p.m. July 5, 2019.
A small explosion had just ignited in the boiler room of Argenta Hall on the University of Nevada, Reno campus.
Minutes later, a technician ran up to a residence adviser standing just outside the cafeteria. He had just come from the boiler room in the basement.
“Tell them to get out,” he said. “Pull the fire alarm.”
Seventeen minutes later, after a broken three-inch feeder line had filled the basement with natural gas that traveled through ducts and elevator shafts, a massive explosion rattled the campus, twisting metal, blasting appliances across rooms and shattering windows.
Police reports and an investigation highlight the time of the first explosion and the second, much larger blast, just after 1 p.m. — a 17-minute window that let dozens of people safely evacuate the building.
But it is 10:22 p.m. that Patricia Richards marks in her mind now a year later.
Richards, UNR’s chief of staff, had just come home from work where she helped organize the crisis team. She was overwhelmed as she leaned against her kitchen counter drinking a glass of water.
Throughout the day, she received updates as residence staff tried to reach hundreds of students who were living in Argenta and may have been inside.
The list went from 220, to 128 and then to 12.
When she finally left the office that night, there were still eight students unaccounted for and she knew she wouldn’t sleep.
She thought about having to call parents. She thought about funerals.
“All clear,” the 10:22 p.m. message said. “Everyone is marked safe.”
UNR President Marc Johnson said the school was blessed as he thought back to a year ago when he got the call. Johnson was in Scotland when Richards left the message.
“There’s been an incident,” she said. “Call immediately.”
“It was an absolute miracle that people got out of the building and is truly amazing that no one got seriously hurt,” Johnson said this week.
Eight minor injuries were reported, most from falling glass and debris.
Johnson said the timing of the explosion was luck. It was summer and the day after the July 4 holiday. Few students were on campus and hundreds of international students living in Argenta were at Lake Tahoe that afternoon.
The findings of a Nevada Department of Public Safety investigation said a catastrophic failure with a boiler was to blame.
The report from the state fire marshal found that the boiler went into a safety mode just days before the July 5 blast.
While a technician was working on the boiler, the initial explosion caused a gas leak. The investigation never found what may have ignited the second blast, but it could have been something in the cafeteria, laundry facilities or elevators.
The cost of the explosion
UNR said the total projected insurance claims from the explosion is about $115 million. To date, UNR has spent more than $65 million to provide temporary student housing, pay for emergency response expenses and build temporary student dining.
UNR has received $52 million to cover expenses from insurance claims and is still working with insurance on the next rounds of funding.
Nye Hall, next to Argenta, will open in July. Windows and exterior damage left the dorm unlivable for the last school year. Total repair costs top $12.8 million. Insurance has paid $12.2 million for design, inspections, window replacements, an electrical upgrade and other costs to put the building back in its original conditions. UNR paid $522,000 for upgrades including redesigning the lobby, putting tile floors near the elevator and upgrades to a student lounges and a resident director apartment.
Repairing Argenta Hall will top $36 million. The project is still in the design phase.
A year later and facing another crisis
Most of UNR’s residential housing staff has remained the same, which has helped amid changing plans and uncertainty because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Most of our staff is exhausted. I call it change fatigue. You can’t get on top of what is normal,” said Dean Kennedy, UNR’s executive director of Residential Life, Housing and Dining Services, about facing the coronavirus.
Kennedy is new to UNR, but he remembers hearing about the explosion when he was working at Sonoma State University.
It’s the worst nightmare for someone who has built a career in residential campus, Kennedy said, adding, “Anything that involves a potential loss of life is.”
For Johnson, that crisis made them better prepared for the changing times amid the pandemic.
“We thought the dorm explosion would be a once-in-a-lifetime event that everybody spent so many hours and so much anxiety and mental effort in solving that problem, and then boom,” Johnson said. “In March ,we have another crisis that we could never imagine and would be a once-in-a-lifetime crisis.”
Johnson said the resilience of people in a crisis is amazing.
“Once people really understand a crisis, people come seem to come together and speak and act with one voice,” he said. “It happened very quickly.”
He said UNR had practiced for a crisis event with training every semester for four years. They have been able to skip practice the last year and work in crisis mode.
“When the explosion occurred, everyone fell right into their practice positions,” he said. “When we saw COVID happening, we came together as the same team and fell right into the same place.”
Siobhan McAndrew tells stories about the people of Northern Nevada and covers education in Washoe County. Read her journalism right here. Consider supporting her work by subscribing to the Reno Gazette Journal.