Last revised: August 29, 2013  

Photo Album

(January 6, 1959 - 5:30 a.m.) - Syracuse, New York
SKYTOP - Syracuse University

1st Bright Light in Window
('Glow of fire - window of door at side entrance')

8 Seconds later...
('Fire bursting through bldg exterior - window')

16 Seconds since 1st Photo...
('Third fire spot - flames spreading rapidly')

24 Seconds later...
('Door Window on Right - Room Window Left')

30 Seconds later...
('Flames breaking through windows')

42 Seconds later...
('Fire shooting though 3 sections of roof - Entrance Door')

57 Seconds later...
('Center of door burned, red glow on wood railing')

73 Seconds later...
('Most of roof now ablaze - also dayroom on right')

"RIVER OF FIRE" by Arlen Trapp

A closer observation and analysis of the above 8 photos follows. Arlen Trapp spent many hours, phone calls, e-mails in his research and preparation for this exclusive report of this terrible event.

The early hours of January 6th, 1959 brought a most unwelcome source of light and heat to the dark and frigid winter night at Syracuse, New York. The air was biting, freezing. Light snow was buffeted by gale-force winds. At 5:30 am, as temperatures dropped to seven degrees above zero and winds gusted to 50 miles per hour, a fire suddenly erupted in a barracks known as Building M-7 at the Skytop campus of Syracuse University. Almost immediately, the hallway of the barracks became a "River of Fire", as it was described by one survivor. Within seconds, the blaze enveloped the entire interior.

Most of the 43 residents were asleep in the barracks. They were young Air Force servicemen, who had begun classes at Skytop the day before, having been assigned there to learn one of the Slavic languages taught by Syracuse University under a special program sponsored by the Air Force Institute of Technology (the Air University). Many were teen-agers who had enlisted a few months earlier and had just completed basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.

Apparently all but four of the sleeping airmen were awakened by the shrill shouts of roommates and the pounding on outside walls. Some just had an intuitive feeling that something was "not right" (air that was too warm, crackling noises, the eerie orange light visible below the door). Almost immediately, the feeling of a threat from some unknown source gave way to the reality of sheer terror, as they saw and felt the flames lapping at their doorway. Many tried to open the door to the hallway, but burned their hands on the knob, saw the "river of fire", and immediately slammed the door shut. Most then struggled to tear the windows out of frames with bare hands or hurl a chair through them – the only, yet fleeting chance to escape from the pyre. Two tried to outrace the flames by running down the hallway to the rear exit: one made it to safety, burned but alive; the other perished—a human torch just outside the exit door. Only a few minutes after the blaze began, there was nothing left of the building except for the twisted skeleton of the structure, the orange glow of embers, the bodies of roommates/buddies—and the survivors, who were changed forever by the fury of the fire.

Just as the fire began to appear as a bright spot against the pitch darkness of the night, a resident in the adjacent barracks (Building M-6) was awakened by the noise and shouts of "Fire!" He immediately set up a tripod in the dayroom, which faced Building 7, and took a series of eight photographs of the fire.. The eight photos are shown here in sequence. Reportedly, they were taken with an interval of 8 (perhaps 12) seconds between shots.

(Camera location and building M-7 Floor Plan and known room occupant names)

The first photo in this series is shown above in Figure 1. The camera was pointed at the central part of the 150-foot length of the building. Consequently, this shot shows the glow of the fire visible through one of the windows of a room or, more likely, the window of the door at the side entrance.

The second shot (see Figure 2.) reveals the next spot where the fire burst through the exterior of the building, probably a window. Unfortunately, it is not known in which direction the camera was pointed when the shutter exposed the film for this shot. The situation already was becoming chaotic, however. Several airmen from adjacent barracks raced to Building 2, where the Charge of Quarters was stationed, to sound the alarm. The CQ made the call to the Syracuse fire department.

Within seconds the fire exposed a third spot on the film, as is starkly evident in Figure 3, the next photo in this series. Here also, the specific direction of the shot is not known. But, it is obvious that the flames spread widely during the 16 seconds since the first photo was taken. An airman from Building M-6 ran to the main entrance, which faced the street, and tried to open the door. The doorknob was too hot! He also ran to the Orderly Room in Building 2.

In the next photo (see Figure 4), one can begin to distinguish several physical features of the building—the glass window of the entrance door and a room window in the left-hand side of the photo. Also, the blaze has intensified significantly. The fire now has burst through the roof; it is lighting the sky high above the roofline.

The dayroom is situated just to the right of the side entrance. The fire is not yet visible through any of the dayroom windows.

The flames are beginning to flare out the window on the left side of the photo. This is the location of the second room to the left of the side entrance, which is occupied by Ralph Lively and Peter Carignan, who may have just broken the window and jumped to safety.

Just after taking the previous photo (Figure 4), the photographer apparently rotated the camera, which was on a tripod, from left-to-right. Thus, the photo in Figure 5 shows the area just to the right of the dayroom (which has the four-window combination on the exterior wall).

In a little more than 30 seconds after the first photo was taken, flames began to flare through the broken windows of three rooms – two on the left and one on the center-right part of the photo (Figure 5).

On the far-right side, the flames are constrained behind the window of a fourth room in which the glass is still intact. Considering the perspective and the angle of this shot, the photo apparently shows windows of the four rooms at the front end of Building M-7, the end that faces Lambreth Lane. If so, it means that the residents of the second room from the end, Ron Kyritz and Ted Lemery, as well as the resident of the third and fourth rooms from the end already have made their escape through the windows. It is possible that the two residents of the room at the far right were among those who perished.

Flames have broken through the roof in several spots on the left side of the photo. Also, as seen on the extreme-right side of the photo, flames are shooting up and outward from the front doorway or, perhaps, from the peak of the building.

In Figure 6, it is apparent that the flames that have burst through three sections of the roof visible in this photo are rising 10-15 feet into the sky. The upper portion of the entrance door is visible—flames clearly outline the glass-window portion of the door as they dart through the panel on the left side of the doorway.

The room directly to the left of the entrance door shows no sign of the fire at this time (the window is not illuminated at all). This room is a utility room, used for a soft-drink machine and a trash receptacle. It is likely that the door to the room is closed; there is no fresh supply of oxygen there to feed the fire.

The dayroom, which is located directly to the right of the side entrance door, also is showing no visual evidence of the fire. Thus, the closed door to the dayroom likewise probably was denying the fire a fresh supply of oxygen

In Figure 7, one can see the intensity and scope of the fire – and, it is still only about one minute after it first became visible to those outside the building. The fire now has consumed the entire center of the door, all of it except for the frame. Flames are shooting several feet through the panel just to the left of the doorway. The intense heat of the fire is causing a red glow on the wood of the railing and the landing outside the doorway.

In the dayroom just to the right of the doorway, the windows are still dark; for now, the fire has not breached this part of the building. The room immediately to the left of the entrance door, the utility room with the soft-drink machine, also is still dark.

The interior of the three rooms on the left are totally engulfed in flames. Flames are beginning to burn through the upper part of the exterior wall panels to the left of two of the windows – the one on the extreme left and the one on the right.

The roof now has been breached so completely by the fire that, despite the strong gale-force winds, the flames are shooting about 20 feet into the dark sky. The two sections of roof on fire, shown on the left side of the previous photo (see Figure 6), now have merged to become one huge conflagration.

This is the last – and most dramatic and frightening – photo in the entire series.

Here, for the first time, flames are visible through the window of the utility room, located to the left of the entrance, and through the four-window set that illuminates the dayroom, located to the right of the entrance. The fire now has breached the walls of those rooms. The glass window panes, however, are still intact.

In the extreme bottom-left of the photo, the intense color of the flames darting through the openings that had been three windows is reflected in the snow on the ground. Perhaps the extreme heat has melted the snow to form small puddles of water.

Most of the roof is ablaze. The only part of the roof not burning at this time is the portion above the dayroom. In the upper-left portion of the photo, a large ball of fire has formed; it is moving skyward like a phantom puff of fire. The flames rising from the roof are visible for miles. In fact, the firemen who responded to the alarm stated that they did not need to look at the directions to find the fire; they could see it lighting up the sky when they were responding and still several miles from Skytop.

THE NEXT MORNING - (January 7, 1959)

The photographer who took the series of eight shots during the fire returned to the scene the next morning to photograph the remains of the building, after the embers had cooled and the bodies of the victims had been recovered. The scene is stark (see Figure 9). The fire was deadly. It left nothing that was flammable. It even melted most of the metal sheets that had clad the exterior walls and the roof of the building.

In Figure 10, however, the damaged, but intact soft-drink machine is clearly identifiable.

No matter how much time passes, this fire has left a lasting mark on the lives of all the people involved.

-- Arlen Trapp



"Luckily, I was a light sleeper, and having arrived at Syracuse just 3 days before the fire, (from Bismarck, North Dakota), my body was still getting used to the time change and environment change. That night, I remember waking up, because it was too hot, so I opened the window to let in some cold air. (Outside temp was below zero with snow on the ground). A short time later, too cold, so closed the window again.

Then woke up to what I thought was the sound of wood crackling, (as it does in a fireplace). I also smelled smoke, ran over to the door, opened it, saw that the lights in the hallway were still on, but a lot of black smoke... closed the door yelled at my roommate Carlton Walker to wake up, and we quickly put some shoes on and tried to wrap a blanket around.

I went back to the door the 2nd time, with the intent of escaping out the side door, and even though I knew better... (should have touched the door first to feel the heat), I opened the door to a wall of orange flames, managed to close it, burned my hands on the doorknob, and we ran over to the window


 to pull it down, push out the screen, jump out into the snow and run over to the next building to wait for ambulances and fire trucks. I remember seeing bloody footprints in the snow. Also, in the hospital both hands were bandaged from burns on the doorknob and screen imprint branded on my hands. I remember flames coming down the eaves from the roof, as we jumped out into the snow.

The guys in the next building were great, covering us with sheets or blankets to keep us warm (outside January temp = 7 degrees below zero, and winds gusting to 50 mph)."

-- Ron Fandrick


We invite other survivors or anyone in adjacent buildings (M-6 or M-8) to share their stories and/or pictures too. Attach to an E-mail:   or send by snailmail.


Another Remembrance of that Fatal Fire

As member of Class SR 9-10-58 I, I was housed in Bldg M6, in a room on the opposite side of the building from M7. I still have vivid memories of the morning of the fire!  I had gotten up very early that morning (it was dark and very windy with blowing snow to study for tests our class was scheduled to take that day.  I had thrown on some clothes & my shoes and headed for the bathroom facilities which had windows facing M7. 


As I walked in, I noticed  wavering orange/reddish showing through the frosted windows - as I wiped off one window, I realized that those lights were flames beaking through the roof  in the middle of the barracks. I yelled, Fire!,  and ran for the side door in the middle of M6 (along with someone else - I don't remember who).


There was drifted snow half-way up to the windows along the side of the buildings - by the time we got outside it was obvious the fire was spreading very fast in the roof of the building (smoke was coming out under the eves).  We managed to get to the outside wall of M7; going in opposite directions, we ran along banging on thealuminum walls and yelling "FIRE"! 


By the time we reached our respective ends of the barracks, flames had spread rapidly - at least one of those who escaped came out through the window, before the fire blew through his room door and engulfed his room.


 As I am sure you know, when the doors at the end of the barracks were thrown open by escapees, the hall-way became a wind tunnel fanning the flames like a blow-torch as the fire doors in between the two ends of the barracks were apparently never closed. I remember helping a couple of airmen to our day room. 


There are a few other things I remember....I recall we had a formation in the road near the chow hall, where we were addresssed by someone (the CO or 1st Sgt) before we went to a delayed we went to the chow hall we had to pass the hearses containing the body bags of the decesed victims....we met for class, but they were suspended after our lead Instructor, Dr. Klausutis (?spelling?) expressed his condolences and advised us of his concern for our well being.....and, I was on duty as Charge of Quarters/CQ either the night after or the next night. 


All incoming calls to the CQ desk pertaining to the fire were to be referred to a Syracuse University number to handle all questions concerning the fire, the deceased and/or those fortunate enough to have escaped. 


Also, at least two members of our class (Sgts), resided in M7 prior the incoming class being assigned to building M7; They were Don Wade & Don Baxter. Wade ultimately worked his way up to NCOIC of the ACR Program at HQ USAFSS, Baxter was involuntarily discharged from the AF in later years.

-- Larry Murdoch

(1/6/1959) - Camera Location - (Filming the inferno...)

Extensive research by Arlen Trapp has identified a resident of Building M-6 as the person who took the above photos. This person, later in life, continued to develop his interest in cameras and photography. We recently found an obituary for this person who died in Indiana on 29 July 2010. (Information not yet verified)

Last revised: August 29, 2013

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