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UNR explosion caused by malfunctioning boiler, officials say

Updated July 9, 2019 - 3:54 pm

RENO — It could be up to two years before the dormitories damaged in an explosion last week could be ready to house students again, University of Nevada, Reno, officials said Tuesday.

In the meantime, the university is scrambling to find alternative housing for the roughly 1,300 students who were set to move into the two buildings in just more than 40 days ahead of the fall semester.

“We are approaching properties very close to campus about allowing us to take out a long-term lease and put our resident advisers as well as our students in there,” UNR’s Vice President of Student Services Shannon Ellis said Tuesday during a news conference to provide updates and details on last week’s explosion, adding that those details have not yet been finalized.

The explosion will postpone housing assignments for students, university President Marc Johnson added. But Johnson ensured that “the assignments will be made.”

Officials also provided more details Tuesday about the events leading up to the explosion that left eight people with minor injuries, including that the boiler that triggered the chain of events that led to the explosion was acting up earlier in the week.

State Fire Marshal Bart Chambers said that the boiler in the basement of Argenta Hall “was having problems earlier in the week and had been shut down,” and that a technician was sent Friday to replace the problem part. Chambers declined to say what that initial problem was or what was being replaced because he did not want to “compromise the integrity of the investigation.”

Around 12:42 p.m., an initial small explosion severed the 3-inch line that fed natural gas into the boiler, and flames started shooting out from the line, Chambers said. That set off the fire alarm and the sprinklers inside the building, he added.

The sprinklers managed to douse the flames, but natural gas continued to pump into the building, rising through the elevator shafts and into the dormitory’s upper floors.

Firefighters arrived just before 1 p.m. and met the technician.

Three minutes after they arrived, the second explosion occurred, this time causing massive destruction to the building, as well as the adjacent Nye Hall.

Chambers stressed that students and their families should not be worried about the safety of the other dormitories on campus, calling the explosion an “isolated incident.” He added that there will be mandatory inspections of the other dorms’ boilers this week as a precaution.

As for the buildings, the damage could have been worse despite the chaotic scene the blast left behind.

“If you talk to the structural engineers, essentially all (of the damage) — it seems hard to believe when you’re looking at it — was superficial. The structural integrity of the building is sound,” Carman said.

The fortuitous timing of the explosion — coming a day after the July 4 holiday during the summer semester when significantly fewer students are inside the dormitories — also was not lost on Carman.

“We can’t imagine almost a better scenario for such a horrible event to have happened,” Carman said.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Colton Lochhead at clochhead@reviewjournal.com or 775-461-3820. Follow @ColtonLochhead on Twitter.

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