Murray State faced an unprecedented tragedy 13 years ago when an arson fire resulted in the death of a student living in Hester College.
Michael Minger, sophomore from Niceville, Fla., died from smoke inhalation on Sept. 18, 1998. Minger was double-majoring in music/vocal performance and broadcast journalism.
Ches Clark was a student at the time and in “Men of Note,” a men’s vocal ensemble, with Minger.
“We hung out, were choir geeks together,” Clark said. “The night of the fire we had had rehearsal about four or five hours before the fire. It was shocking.”
Clark lived in Elizabeth College and said he was unaware of the incident until he looked out his window Friday morning and saw the chaotic scene outside Hester.
“I woke up that next morning to smoke still hanging in the air and fire trucks,” Clark said. “What alerted me to it is I slept right next to the window and I didn’t even hear the sirens that night, but that morning all of the activity on the other side of Winslow caught my attention. I was like, ‘what the hell went on?’”
Following the incident, the campus atmosphere was somber and fearful, Clark said.
“I know a couple of people who had been in Hester when it burned, who every time there was a fire drill, just absolute blind panic,” Clark said. “Some people went into depression. Some couldn’t sleep. Some people slept all of the time.”
Hester College was emptied until the spring semester.
“People were living three to a room in some places,” he said. “There were no private rooms. Some people were off campus.”
While the student and campus community was affected by the blaze, Minger’s family felt a different hurt.
“There never will be closure, we’ll always remember Michael,” his mother Gail Minger said. “Every day I think about Michael and so does his twin sister, Melissa, and his father. That’s just part of our lives now – incorporating Michael’s death.”
After her son’s death, Minger became an advocate for fire safety.
Fire safety precautions were not abundant at the University before the fire. None of the residential colleges had sprinkler systems, The Murray State News reported following the incident. An aerial truck able to reach the top of high-rise residential colleges was purchased by Murray State and the city fire department in 1994. The street between Winslow Cafeteria and Hart College was replaced with grass knolls in 1995, removing space required for the truck to maneuver.
Minger lobbied for Kentucky state laws to change following the incident. In July 2000, the Michael H. Minger Act took effect. By law, public colleges and universities as well as private institutions licensed by the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education are required to report campus crimes to their employees, students and the public on a timely basis.
“Unfortunately, Murray State knew things the Minger family and other families could never have known about the conditions of that dorm,” Minger said. “So I think raising the awareness of parents and students about where they go choose a campus to make that a very important part of their choice and having them become self-advocates.”
Minger sued the University, claiming it violated the Americans With Disabilities Act when it did not permit her son to live off campus due to mild learning abilities. The suit was settled in 2004.
Minger also started the Michael H. Minger foundation with a focus on promoting fire safety to all students, especially those with disabilities.
“I think the most important thing is that the work I do today in Michael’s honor through grants from the Department of Homeland Security we’ve been able to reach millions of students across the country and I think that’s a legacy for Michael that I’m hoping he would be proud of.”