UH Fire Jeopardizes School's Financial Documents, Student Loan Records

By Jodi Leong
Published On: Feb 11 2012 09:37:53 PM HST
Updated On: Feb 13 2012 08:46:29 AM HST
HONOLULU -

Late Sunday afternoon University of Hawaii officials said employee pay checks were not burned in a fire that destroyed a building on the University of Hawaii Manoa campus.

However, a UH spokesperson said other university services and payments could be delayed.

The fire broke out just after 8 a.m. in a wooden structure on Lower Campus Road, near the Stan Sheriff Center.

The office was home to the university's Fiscal Management and Procurement Office.

Campus security first saw a huge black cloud of smoke.

"I saw flames coming out from maybe like four windows, just gushing out, coming up to the roof. I mean, it was just crazy," said Reymundo Gomez, a campus security employee.

Flames and smoke poured out of the office that handles payroll records, student loans and other fiscal matters for the university's 10 campuses, including 60,000 students and 7,000 to 8,000 faculty members and staff.

"There is a substantial amount of records that are on paper and we suspect there might be items that are lost or damaged by water," said U.H. spokesman Gregg Takayama.

Takayama said some records are stored on computers off site, but the university's effort to transition to a completely computerized fiscal management system was not yet complete.

"That's still several months away. So there will be substantial loss in terms of records, we believe, at this point," Takayama said. And Takayama said the UH is uncertain how much information will be retrievable from office computers and papers, and if payroll will be affected.

"Until we have a chance to go in there and find out what records have been damaged and what records are still retrievable, we won't know for certain," Takayama said.

Firefighters brought the flames under control in less than 20 minutes, but dark smoke continued to billow from the 30-year-old wooden structure for hours.

"We have a lot of contents in this building. So we do have a lot of paperwork, equipment, electronics that we're trying to deal with," said Captain Robert Main, of the Honolulu Fire Department.

At 11 a.m., there hours after the fire broke out, the fire reignited. Main said firefighters were struggling with spaces between the roof and ceiling.

"There's a dropped ceiling in there right now that we're pulling out and there's a space between that and the roof space itself that we have to access," Main said.

A firewall separated the unit from adjoining offices and kept the fire contained to the Fiscal Management and Procurement office.

The cause of the fire is under investigation.

Main said a preliminary damage estimate is $600,000 to both the structure and its contents.

The American Red Cross is in the process of opening a shelter at Manoa Valley District Park in Honolulu for residents evacuated from their homes due to the fire.

The shelter is set up at Manoa Valley District Part at 2712 Kaaipu Avenue. The shelter was expected to open at 5:30 p.m.

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