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Feature   |  Winter 2007

Destruction and renewal

Faculty and students recover from devastating fire at aquaculture lab

On Nov. 14, 2004, Purdue's Aquaculture Research Lab (ARL) caught fire from an unknown electrical malfunction. The facility, which housed the research of several faculty and graduate students in the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources, was completely destroyed. This is the story of how the disaster affected those involved, and how they rebuilt from the ashes.


Steve Hart, a fisheries graduate student, was sleeping soundly in the early morning hours of Nov. 14, until he was awakened by a 4 a.m. phone call from his advisor: "The lab's on fire...It's a total loss."

Unfortunately, it wasn't a nightmare. It was a call from Paul Brown, professor of aquaculture and Hart's advisor, who could only watch as the lab burned uncontrollably. He knew that it was too late, as did the congregation of firefighters who'd arrived minutes after the 2:53 a.m. fire alarm, and several of his colleagues, there in the early morning hours for moral support. Brown watched it burn, the same lab that he had helped build 13 years before. By morning it was leveled.

Hart, too, was affected; he had been performing three experiments. One was to be the subject of his Ph.D. thesis, and another was slated to end the day after the fire.

"My first reaction was utter shock and disbelief," he says. "I had to drive there the next morning and see the ashes myself to comprehend it."

The fire ruined many large tanks and raceways that allowed researchers to study growth rates, soybean-based diets and advanced production systems for fish farming. It destroyed $1.2 million of active research and fish, many of which had been raised for years. Additionally, it caused about $1.5 million in structural damage and ruined more than $500,000 worth of research equipment.

Trent Sutton, an associate professor of fisheries, and aquatic ecotoxicologist Marisol Sepulveda were also affected. Sutton lost about 100 3-year-old lake sturgeon, a threatened species of fish that he was studying. Sepulveda had just joined Purdue's faculty two weeks earlier, and, although she did not lose much, it was a less-than-auspicious beginning.

Sifting through the ashes

Marisol Sepulveda joined the fisheries and aquatic sciences faculty just two weeks before the Aquaculture Research Lab went up in flames in 2004. After two years in temporary facilities, her research finally has a permanent home.

Shock and disbelief aside, it became clear that Brown and his colleagues would not abandon their research. The very next morning an insurance adjustor arrived to assess damage and discuss future options. Brown and Hart immediately got back to work sifting through the ashes to make an inventory of everything they had lost.

Within a week, Sutton and Brown had secured space for their students: Sutton in the Beef Research building north of the ARL and Brown in Purdue Research Foundation's Cindas building.

Rob Swihart, head of the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources, who was there on the night of the fire, helped Brown negotiate with the insurance company, which agreed to replace everything, and the aquaculture faculty began looking at designs for a new lab.

The manager of the old facility had left, so the next spring the department hired Bob Rode to fill the position. "I had a lot of experience maintaining and rebuilding aquaculture equipment, so I was excited to help Purdue start anew," he says.


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