On Wednesday, April 28, 2004 at a little after 3pm, the temperature was 72 degrees and rising, the sky was fair, and wind gusted south-southwest up to 32 mph. Humidity was low. By all accounts, it was a beautiful spring day, and Eastern Illinois University’s Spring Semester was quickly coming to a close. Students crammed for final exams, which would begin the following Monday.
I don’t remember what I was doing on campus (probably hanging out in the food court), but as I walked toward the north quad, I noticed a crowd gathering. At 3:14 pm, someone had called 911 from inside Blair Hall, an ivy-covered Gothic Revival building directly southeast of Old Main. Smoke billowed from the third floor windows.
Blair Hall is the third oldest building on campus. It was constructed in 1913 and originally called the Model School, then renamed after football coach Francis G. Blair in 1958. It completed the triad of buildings that made up the old campus, including Old Main and the fabled Pemberton Hall. Blair Hall was home to the anthropology and sociology departments, so I only ever took a handful of elective classes there.
Police and volunteer firefighters from Coles County and neighboring counties arrived around 3:30 and made sure everyone was evacuated. They quickly sealed off 7th Street in front of the building, and water hoses snaked across the pavement. Curious residents of Park Place Apartments watched the commotion from balconies just down the street.
In fact, there were so many students and other onlookers standing around recording the event, the Daily Eastern News devoted an entire article to the phenomenon. I had never seen so many students on campus at one time. Not even the annual “Quakin’ in the Quad” drew so many spectators. I was right there with them, snapping away with my analog film camera. Others took pictures with their cell phones, technology that had only recently been introduced in the U.S. Back then, resolution on a camera phone was less than one megapixel!
After an hour battling flames inside and out, an alarm sounded at 4:35 pm and firefighters evacuated the building. The outpouring of support from local businesses was incredible. They donated food, coffee, and even trash bags to emergency workers. Firefighters continued to fight the blaze until sundown. In the end, it was determined a blowtorch used by construction workers to remove paint accidentally ignited combustible material in the wall and caused the fire. Thankfully no one was hurt.
EIU administrators worked hard to salvage the building, and after two years and $6 million, Blair Hall was painstakingly restored to its former glory. It’s strange how a disaster can bring people together. For one spring afternoon in 2004, it seemed like the whole campus came out to support and encourage the volunteer firefighters who fought that terrible blaze, and witness and record the worst physical disaster to hit Eastern Illinois University in recent memory.