MOUNT VERNON – Lightning struck an old Cornell College building early Friday morning, igniting a fire that destroyed the bell tower atop the building and melted the one-ton bell inside.
“I was awake because I knew there was a storm and there was a tremendous boom,” said Denver Dillard, who lives just across the street from the college.
Firefighters said they rushed to College Hall at around 5:40 a.m. The historic bell tower or cupola on the top of the building was up in flames. Dozens of firefighters were there to lend a hand.
“We couldn’t find fire inside the building, so we gained access to the attic, went up into the attic, still couldn’t find fire, we started seeing smoke and we got up into the steeple building in which we found fire and smoke. So we started an attack and at the same time we had trucks coming from Cedar Rapids and Marion to help us since we don’t have a ladder truck,” said Mount Vernon Fire Department Lt. Mehrdad Zarifkar.
Crews said the fire only spread to a portion of the roof and attic, but the rest of the building was not damaged by the fire. The college knows it will have some water damage near the bell tower to deal with.
College spokesman Jamie Kelly said firefighters spent several hours putting out the fire and making sure all of the hot spots were extinguished. According to Kelly, crews were called back to the building hours after the lightning strike when a roofing company climbed up to check out the damage and found some material still smoldering.
College Hall houses classrooms and offices, so no one was inside when lightning struck the building. People passing by were saddened by the sight of the charred bell tower.
“This is a building that really means a lot to campus. It’s the second oldest on campus and it was actually built by students and professors in 1857. It’s a building people really love having class in because it really ties it into the history,” Kelly said.
“I am actually a Cornell alum. So, it was actually near and dear to me and we went up and we were expecting the top floor to be on fire, so I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t as far as we thought it was,” Zarifkar said
Kelly said classes that were scheduled in College Hall on Friday will be moved elsewhere on campus. This is only the first week of the fall semester at Cornell.
Firefighters said the historic one-ton bell was melted by the lightning strike. The college said it typically rings it twice a year for special occasions. College officials said a tree in front of the building was hit last spring by lighting. The brick building sits at the top of a hill.