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Fire rips through SUNY Canton building, closes campus

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CANTON — Firefighters spent hours Friday at SUNY Canton’s Cook Hall, where there was an explosion in a chemistry lab on the north end of the building just before noon.

“No one was in danger,” Canton Fire Chief Michael E. Dalton said.

He said there were no injuries, but nearly 10 departments responded to the fire, and hazmat teams were called.

Cook Hall is home to the schools of science, health and criminal justice.

Because of the fire, school officials closed the campus and canceled classes until Feb. 20.

Only students with obligations outside the classroom, such as athletes, may remain on campus.

School officials said they are arranging for several buses to take the New York City students home and bring them back Feb. 19.

The men’s ice hockey game versus a club team from Syracuse University on Friday night at SUNY Canton was not canceled.

“We consider ourselves very fortunate that no one was hurt,” SUNY Canton President Joseph L. Kennedy said in a news release. “It was a tremendous response from our local firefighters, rescue squads and police agencies, including our own university police here on campus. This situation could have been worse, but these agencies and individuals were exceptional in containing the fire and minimizing the damage.”

Mr. Kennedy said the school will make up the instructional time.

“We will undoubtedly have to make up some classes later in the semester and maximize alternative classroom space, but ultimately we’re hoping this will be minimally disruptive in the long run,” Mr. Kennedy said.

Students were directed away from the smoke because of the danger of chemicals.

“It’s a very serious condition,” St. Lawrence County Emergency Services Director Martin J. Hassett said.

All firefighters would have to go through a decontamination process, Mr. Hassett said.

The campus center was closed. Wickes and Payson halls also were evacuated.

The school decided to cancel classes because the fire was in a building that connects with two others that may have been damaged by smoke.

“The fire was at the intersection of three major buildings,” SUNY Canton spokesman Gregory E. Kie said. “We have to survey the extent of the damage and we don’t want people wandering around a fire scene.”

Mr. Kie said he confirmed that no one was in the lab when the fire exploded, and few classes were in session because the school works on a Monday-through-Thursday class schedule.

St. Lawrence County fire investigators and state arson investigators were able to enter the two-story building late Friday and have not yet ruled out arson, Mr. Hassett said. They will be back on campus to continue investigating this morning.

Firefighters also notified officials from the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

“We don’t have any witnesses to the explosion right now,” Chief Dalton said.

He said that lithium, sodium and water-reactant organic and inorganic chemicals were stored in the lab that exploded.

“Even a small amount of this stuff can be very dangerous,” Chief Dalton said.

Overall, he was pleased with the firefighters’ response. “It was good turnout, and we had a tough time,” he said. “Everybody here has jobs.”

Times staff writer Martha Ellen contributed to this report.

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