Defined by an Unspeakable Event

I am a Providence College alumnus but, in my mind, and more specifically I belong to a community of coeds whose lives were defined and altered by the events of December 13, 1977. The details of that evening involved endless and echoing sirens filling the air for what seemed like miles and miles while flames engulfed the Aquinas Hall women’s dormitory.  Panic, disbelief and horror interrupted the stillness of that early December morning and our lives forever.  Awoken to the immediate and haunting sounds of emergency vehicles seeming to arrive for hours on end. Sleep filled eyes took only moments to register what was happening in our seemingly safe and sheltered world.  We were roused by endless sirens permeating the still air of our campus on this cold and dark December morning. Our small college community immediately rallied together gathering in the quadrangle outside our respective dormitories.  

We had just gathered in the “quad” hours earlier to play in the snow as we were releasing some final exam preparation stress.  We were a small and close community knowing how to work hard academically but also how to have fun together. Little did we know what was ahead of us that evening and the significance of a coed’s effort to dry her wet snowy clothing in her dorm closet with a hair drier.  How could we? Some of us were still basically teenagers.  What possibly could go wrong? We were so young, feeling somewhat immortal and safe within the confines of our idyllic New England college. This youthful mistake would seal the fate of ten young woman and alter the lives of others forever. There was no mal intent just a horrible tragic accident… 

As the emergency continued to unfold so did our understanding of the gravity of what was happening. My roommate and I were relieved to find and speak with the Aquinas Hall resident assistant as she was safely out of the dorm. What we didn’t know or recognize was that she was consumed with her own sense of duty to the women she felt responsible for and went back into the dormitory to help with the rescue efforts…she perished. Endless hours of not knowing if a friend survived while asking and searching local hospitals. All the while she was in the makeshift morgue…the Aquinas Chapel. This violent and unrelenting fire was fueled by the crepe paper Christmas decorations that lined the dormitory walls and basically became an inferno. No sprinkler system was in place at that time but due to the PC dormitory fire, colleges and universities across the country made the appropriate changes…wisdom born of pain.

In 2017, the appropriate classes were sent an invitation to attend a 40th year remembrance of the Aquinas Hall tragedy taking place at the new college chapel. I have yearly awoken from sleep precisely at 3:10 am each December 13th without fail or exception and attend my own informal remembrance. I do not know how my mind does this, but it has not failed me yet and I know others who do exactly the same. I wanted to attend the 40th remembrance and was in contact with two of my roommates making our plans to do so. We enjoyed spending time together that day, walking and talking freely about what happened 40 years ago mixed in with tales of our years together as students at PC.  We chatted about the bond we have and how it is difficult for others to truly understand not only what we experienced that early morning but how that traumatic experience defined us then, now and always. For myself, I have yet to give air to the words that would describe what I saw and experienced that early morning.

Spending the day at PC and witnessing all of the changes on campus was familiar but not quite as I have not visited campus often over the many years to see its growth. Lunch at Alumni Café, walking around campus as we waited for the service to begin, we saw our contemporaries doing just what we were doing…looking and wondering who others might be?  Their name? Their major? What dorm which always leads to the question of what floor? That became a significant question as the fire ripped through the 4th floor of Aquinas Hall.

Time spares no one.  We had all physically changed over the many years since graduation but there is that moment, that ” tell” when you observe an expression in another’s eyes, a smile or a particular mannerism that allows you to immediately and quite unexpectedly call out that person’s name with complete recognition. A wonderful feeling that brings you right back in time…

We moved into the chapel stopping to pay our respect to the 10 eternally beautiful women we had come to remember.  We took our seats allowing us more time to span the group gathering to see if we could recognize and reconnect with yet more colleagues. I comfortably sat between two of my roommates and dearest friends. Looking to the left side of the chapel I noticed a man in his dress uniform. I grew a bit shaky as I immediately wondered if he was one of the magnificent firefighters from so many years ago. I turned to one of my roommates to see what she thought but she was unsure as well.  He was wearing his formal attire and stoically sitting alone in quiet respect. His image captivated my gaze. I just had to know. 

The service continued, Father MacPhail titled the sermon “The Great Invite” addressing “the burden we share.”  The chorus sang…we prayed together, sang together, shed more tears together and after a stunning performance of Ave Maria we were solemnly ready to move on to our prospective places. As the pews emptied I approached the man in blue asking him if he was a first responder 40 years ago, tears filled both of our eyes and he said “yes” and not only was he a firefighter that early morning but currently he was the only surviving responder from that December13th. He looked at me as my two roommates joined us in the chapel isle and exclaimed “I was only 20 years old that night!” We commiserated that we were only 19 meeting both the urgency and power in his words. We were not alone in our struggle to understand something beyond understanding. Here was this strong and powerful man giving me license to understand my vulnerability through his expressive words allowing me to take comfort that December 13th was just too rough for us all…I felt part of an expanded community.  

I am not completely sure what I imagined the remembrance of the Aquinas Hall fire would do to help me cope with a nightmare that has haunted me for so many years but meeting this firefighter was so poignant. I am grateful to have met him and even more grateful that he continued to be a Providence firefighter heroically saving lives for years to come. Meeting one of the many heroes and faces of that December 13th was more healing than anything to date. He came alone, sat quietly under the radar but shone like a beacon to me…he needed to remember too.

The fire occurred in December, college finals upon return to campus in January and the historic blizzard of ’78 come February…that extraordinary snow maybe was a sign of renewal.

Author’s note….I wrote this piece just a couple of years ago as it took so many years for me to put into words what happened that early December 13th morning. I thought about making some changes to this essay but decided not and will let it forever stand as is. The Providence Journal published an abridged version last year which many found helpful. I was unsure if I was going to share this essay ever again but over the past week or so I have noticed other Providence College grads still struggling with their words to describe their own experience that horrendous morning so this is for my fellow alumnus…

Author: Elizabeth Ricketson

A graduate of Providence College with a BA in English, Elizabeth Ricketson has always had a love of literature and the fine arts. Elizabeth’s essays focus on life experiences and life in Vermont.

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