Most Records Believed Spared From USIU Fire

Times Staff Writer

Although damage is now estimated at $1 million, a fire at United States International University spared most essential records and should have little effect on the university's functioning, USIU administrators said Monday.

The swift-burning blaze claimed about 10 Asian art objects and gutted a 4,800-square-foot administrative building at the Scripps Ranch campus on Sunday night. There were no injuries and no other structures were harmed.

Fifty firefighters drawn from San Diego and Poway spent more than an hour at the scene before the fire, which was first detected by a security guard at 10:20, was extinguished. The building, surrounded by tall eucalyptus trees, is in an isolated part of the 200-acre campus on Pomerado Road.

The private school serves more than 7,000 students annually, offering a range of subjects and degrees in the humanities and social sciences.

Although more than 25 computer and telex units were consumed by flames, the mainframe computer that stores student records is in another building, minimizing the amount of data lost, USIU Senior Vice President Randy Phillips said Monday. Classes were held on schedule Monday.

"We were afraid that we had lost a lot of documents, but it appears as if the standing file cabinets survived the fire," Phillips said. "The fire should make no difference in students' lives. I expect that everyone will be back to work and all our administrative functions should be back to normal by Tuesday."

The cause of the fire was tentatively attributed to faulty electrical wiring, but a final determination will have to await the outcome of a San Diego Fire Department investigation.

After investigators on the scene Monday morning determined that the walls still standing were unsafe, they banned anyone from entering the structure, said Capt. Larry Carlson of the San Diego fire investigation detail. Consequently, the probe has been delayed for several days until the ruins can be shored up.

"They noticed that the concrete floor was beginning to sag and that the building was losing its shape. The insurance company is now paying a contractor to strengthen the structure," Carlson said.

The two-story building, made of wood, brick and stucco, was not equipped with a smoke detector or a sprinkler system, Phillips said, but had been inspected regularly by the Fire Department.

Asked whether the university would take action against the firm that built the 11-year-old structure, he said, "No, it's fully covered by insurance so there's no problem."

However, several of the Asian art objects destroyed in the fire were irreplaceable, according to Leon Sinder, who directs the university's Asian Pacific Rim Program.

Sinder said he spent 50 years collecting the art before he donated it to the university. The Chinese and Korean artworks were used to decorate the office and conference room of USIU President William C. Rust, whose offices were on the second floor of the building.

"There was an absolutely beautiful scroll painting depicting scholars who go to heaven, some pottery that was over 400 years old, and several carved wooden chests," Sinder said. The art, which was to be placed in a soon-to-be-constructed museum, represented only a small part of the entire collection, he said.

Asked to estimate the price of the lost items, Sinder said, "When something is that old you can't fix some crude dollar value on it."

Phillips said that the staff members who worked in the building will be reassigned to other administrative buildings and classrooms until the structure can be rebuilt.

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