A sociological reflection on the APSA fire

The meetings of the American Political Science Association were significantly disrupted by small fires that started around 1am on Saturday morning at the Wardman Park Marriott in Washington DC. What exactly happened, as far as I know, isn’t yet certain. Was the cause arson? Was there someone loose in the building after guests had been evacuated? Was the ATF called in to investigate? I have no answers, but perhaps some of the rumors we were hearing and sharing as we spent around 7 hours either waiting outside the hotel, sleeping in the lobby, or herded into a ballroom are true.

To make some sense of the experiences of those hours between 1am and about 8 on Saturday morning, it really doesn’t matter what facts about the cause of the fires are true. The ‘facts’ of the event as I know them include these: we were woken up at 1am by an automated voice, accompanied by a traditional fire alarm, saying “there is a fire emergency in the building.” I got out of bed, quickly put on a pair of jeans and my shoes, grabbed my wallet with the room key and headed into the hallway. The first image I saw was a middle aged woman who appeared very frightened, and I heard someone, maybe her, say “we can’t find the stairs.” That disconcerting moment was quickly resolved as I watched the woman open the fire escape door just a few feet behind me and we entered the stairwell from the 9th floor. The stairs were crowded and slow moving. It took us only a few minutes to make it down, but it was stop and start, and near the bottom a few people rushed past others who were making an effort to give folks in front time. The perceived slowness and rushing added to what was an altogether nerve wracking few minutes.

Once outside and across the Marriott’s main drive I did like others and looked up. There was no visible evidence of fire, but there was a strong odor of what I assume was burning plastic. At that point I wondered if my colleague who was on another floor was out yet and sent a text. She wasn’t out yet, but was on her way. So, I waited a few minutes until I received a text that she was out, but on the other side of the hotel. Now attention turned to what would be the primary question of the next 7 or 8 hours: When do we get back to our rooms? The building wasn’t an inferno, and in all the fire evacuations I’ve experienced I’ve gotten back to normal within minutes. Not this time.

Instead, the hundreds of us outside watched as firefighters moved in and out of the building. A few minutes stretched to 3 hours as hotel staff began distributing bottles of water and bed sheets for those who were cold. Some started to sleep on the grass around the building. Others stood an chatted with colleagues like you might at any professional conference when you run into friends you only see once a year. Of course, the main topic of conversation was ‘What’s going on in there, and when do we go back in?’

Around 4 we were allowed back into the lobby. Some of us got chairs and benches, while the majority sat or slept on the floor throughout the large first floor of the hotel. I’ve never seen anything like this. The pictures I tweeted to express just how strange it all was got shared pretty widely, including on two local tv news stations.

Those pictures don’t do justice to how surreal it was to see all these folks, many pretty well known scholars, relatively dazed and disheveled, and sleeping under sheets on the floor. Walking and tweeting was dangerous because you could easily have stepped on someone. The situation was outside the bounds of any of my own experience. The pretensions of the self so common at academic conferences were thrown into sharp relief (aided by some who continued to network, work on presentations, and even run statistical analyses on the laptops they’d grabbed on the way out of their rooms).

Around 6 we were all moved into a large ballroom on the first floor. I found it unsettling and had the urge just to leave the building at this moment. Some folks were starting to yell for some info, many made jokes to deal with the nerves and uncertainty. I have a much better understanding of the value of gallows humor now than I did before. It was a scary situation, and what I’m sure looked like crass tweets from outside were comforting to those of us using them to find some relief and common understanding.

There were, I think, representatives of the fire and police departments talking to us. I’m short, and in a crowd I can rarely see who is speaking. Also, the room had two sections with a divider between them, and I ended up on the side away from the announcements. As we sat barely dressed at round tables, eating the semi-fancy fare common at catered academic conferences and drinking the coffee provided by Marriott, we strained to hear muffled instructions from the authority figure who was controlling access to our rooms. After a failed attempt to distract us all with about 5 minutes of what looked like a movie few political scientists would find entertaining, we began to learn how we’d get to our abandoned stuff.  

First to get back would be those with early flights out of town or medication needs, and they’d go back floor by floor with police escorts. The rest of us would wait, but for how long? Around 7, as that process was wrapping up, we were told we’d all get to back to our rooms, by floor, to retrieve our stuff before the building was shut down and we’d all have to find somewhere else to stay. The conference events planned for the building had already been canceled until noon, so now it sounded like everything was off. But then, 5 minutes later we were told that in just 2 hours or so we’d all get to back to our rooms and stay. Then, about 5 minutes later we were told the building was open and everything was returning to normal as a ‘last sweep’ of the hotel was complete. In around 10 minutes, at the end of a very strange 7 hours, we’d gone from a serious situation requiring closing a major DC hotel to ‘everything is normal, return to your activities.’ 

Many of us went quickly to sleep to try to rest up for whatever we had to do later. I stayed in the lobby for a few minutes and called my wife to report the unbelievable events of the night. As I stood on the phone in my jeans, sneakers with no socks, and white t-shirt I watched as academics in standard conference attire (political scientists love suits and ties, by the way) filled the hotel for working breakfasts and early morning sessions. 



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