It was about 5:45 am on October 14.
Lieutenant Michael Johnson and Officer Dennis Schultz were ending their shift at SUNY Brockport University Police (UP) headquarters when the county dispatch radio called out for an apartment fire off Fourth Section Road in the Town of Sweden.
University Police got on scene in about two minutes, but they didn’t see residents gathered outside, and they didn’t hear fire alarms. Instead, the crackling sound of the fire and an orange glow led them to building 700 at the Viking Apartments & Townhomes on Viking Way. Johnson, a former volunteer firefighter, and Schultz joined others from the Brockport Police Department (BPD) and headed into buildings 600 and 700.
The halls were filling with smoke, but the buildings were eerily quiet. Johnson recalls hearing what could’ve been one local carbon monoxide detector, but no building alarms. He said they didn’t know how many people were still inside. That’s when UP and BPD started aggressively knocking on doors — even breaking down about a dozen.
SUNY Brockport freshman Nick Mohr woke up his girlfriend, sophomore Alison Caton, after hearing screaming. They lived in 700.
“There’s a fire. Get the cats,” Mohr said.
Smoke was coming through their front door, filling their living room and kitchen. They knew they could not go through the hallway. That’s when Mohr flipped the couch, grabbed the cats, and wrapped them in a blanket.
Caton and Mohr headed to their second-floor balcony to jump to the ground.
“As soon as we jumped off the balcony … we looked up and the flames just erupted twice the size of the building,” Caton said.
Senior Marissa Cangemi woke up to noises from outside. She and her boyfriend, senior Steven Carline, lived on the other end of the apartments.
“I looked outside my blinds, and all I could see was just red. I had never seen something like that before,” Cangemi said.
As they escaped the building, they passed by police pounding on their neighbors’ doors.
“I thought it was super surreal. So much damage was happening, and there was nothing I could do to help,” Carline said.
From the parking lot, they emailed their Brockport professors to let them know what was happening. They only had one outfit with them and no clear vision of when they could return to their apartment.
Little did they know, the campus was already coordinating resources and support.
“SUNY Brockport Residential Life reached out to all current students who may have been impacted by the fire,” said Director of Residential Life/Learning Communities Monique Rew-Bigelow. “The students were directly contacted and offered resources, including help contacting and notifying faculty members, access to the Golden Eagle Opportunity Fund, Counseling Center resources, as well as an invitation to stay on campus. Students were appreciative of the timely communication and easy availability of help.”
Carline and Cangemi took up the offer to stay on campus. For two nights, they stayed in Eagle Hall. They were thankful for the support of the college and their friends who lent them some bedding.
The good news was that their apartment smelled like smoke, but it wasn’t smoke-damaged. They were among the lucky, and that made Carline feel guilty.
Caton and Mohr, on the other hand, lost everything.
“It was very lonely,” said Caton. “I’m 19, and Nick is 18. We’re just kids, and this is our first time living not with our parents.” They moved in together at the start of the COVID-19 quarantine and hadn’t considered fire insurance.
The hypothetical question: What would you grab in a fire? The answers are often the sentimental or irreplaceable.
“In reality, you get what you can get. You get your phone and your cat. You can’t think,” said Caton.
The Viking contacted the residents to let them know they could come back and grab belongings from their apartment. But in a twisted turn of events, a backhoe was tearing down their apartment to rubble as they pulled into the parking lot.
Mohr had everything in that apartment. The things his late mother had given him. His high school diploma he earned back in June. His football jersey, state ring, and senior night poster.
“It’s not the big things that we’re sad about anymore. It’s the small things,” Caton said.
The big things, like computers and furniture, would be replaced. But she lost the comforts of her favorite sweatshirts, written letters, photos, and her growing plant collection.
And if that wasn’t hard enough, it was fall midterms. Their coursework, every textbook, and notebooks were ash.
“It’s really a setback for school. I came in and wanted to have my best foot forward. A strong start. Then this happens,” Mohr said.
He worried about passing his math test without any available notes or his computer.
In total, 12 apartments were damaged, and 41 people lost their homes. Two victims were transported to the hospital. The cause of the fire is still under investigation, according to the Brockport Fire Department.
Support in Droves
As the fire dominated the news cycle, the community came together in droves to support the victims: from GoFundMe fundraising, to a Facebook support group, and clothing and food donation sites. University Police chose to sponsor three impacted families for the third annual Shop-with-a-Cop event, a fundraised shopping spree, on December 15.
Additionally, the college’s Golden Eagle Opportunity Fund provided $5,000 in support to five victims who applied for the grant.
It took Caton and Mohr days to go through their donations. “It’s just been so heartwarming,” she said of their support. “It’s made everything seem a little easier.”
Carline and Cangemi found some comfort in SUNY Brockport faculty and staff who reached out, namely Peter Ozog, lecturer of management in the Department of Business Administration, and Gail Argetsinger, costume designer and associate professor in the Department of Theatre and Music Studies, who offered to sponsor a shopping trip or let Cangemi wash her clothes on campus.
There was thankfulness and support all around Brockport’s community.
“It’s honestly something I’ll never forget,” Lieutenant Johnson said while telling how a woman stopped by University Police to thank them. “That memory will last a lifetime,” he added.
And in the spirit of Thanksgiving, Johnson said, “It’s something to be thankful for, that people were able to get out alive and celebrate another holiday.”