A Franklin College student tried to imagine multiple buildings on her campus being hit by fire, gutted and closed.

She knew she had found the topic for one of her senior class projects.

Emily Metheny, now a graduate who works as a promotion assistant at an Indianapolis radio station, has re-told the stories of the 1985 fires that destroyed a residence hall and an iconic office building.

Her documentary of the devastating fires that struck the Franklin College campus 31 years ago is being shown to alumni and the public in a special viewing this week.

Two accidental fires on campus during a four-week period destroyed the college’s administrative space, a dormitory and 40 percent of its classrooms.

The resident hall coordinator described crawling on his hands and knees through the building, beating on doors to make sure the 225 students escaped a burning Bryan Hall on a Wednesday morning in March.

John Shafer, who now works as the director of the college’s counseling center, went up a ladder to rescue a desperate resident, who was terrified and trapped on the third floor. The fire department rescued a second trapped student, he said.

Bill Martin, who was president from 1983 to 1997, heard the fire alarms and looked out to see students running across campus to the burning dormitory, he recalled in the documentary.

Weeks later, on a Sunday evening, he saw students running in the dark towards the burning Old Main building. So he ran towards it, too.

Shafer and Martin revisited the fear, mourning and doubt that professors and students felt in the days after the fire.

“For most of us who lived there, it was the first significant loss we had experienced,” Shafer said.

“This was, in many ways, a deep mourning and a deep loss for a lot of people.”

While Old Main was still on fire, Martin and his vice presidents gathered in a Greek house that had been opened to them. They quickly realized that half of the campus had either been destroyed by fire or was closed and in need of repairs. Immediately they faced questions and fears that the college was dying.

Martin’s answer referenced rising from the ashes like the mythical Phoenix, and that became the theme of the college’s recovery.

He addressed the college community in an inspiring speech, and recreated it for Metheny’s documentary by reviewing news coverage of the event.

The recreation of the speech helped cement for the documentary the devastation and will of the college after the fire, Metheny said.

“Franklin College has been wounded, but in no sense of the word have we been crippled. If we choose to hunker down and plan and act well, we can make our mark on the next 150 years. We can be the Franklin phoenix,” Martin said.

If you go

Time of the Phoenix: The Franklin Fires

What: 35-minute documentary about 1985 fires at Franklin College

When: 6 p.m. Thursday

Where: Richardson Chapel at Franklin College

RSVP: 317-738-8051

Author photo
Michele Holtkamp is editor of the Daily Journal. She can be reached at mholtkamp@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2774.