State College apartment fire: Tenants search for new housing, come to grips with destruction

Somewhere inside the charred remains of his Waupelani Heights apartment sits Soonil Lee’s life’s work.

Lee’s home, the apartment building where he has raised his family, went up in flames Thursday night.

Within his apartment, one of 19 units destroyed in the blaze, are the computer and external hard drives that contain the only copies of 10 years worth of research he compiled during his career at Penn State.

Returning Friday afternoon to survey the damage to his top-floor apartment, Lee was left to wonder whether his work was spared from the flames, heat, water and the collapse of the building’s roof.

Like many of his neighbors in the building, Lee was not home when the fire began. He was with his wife and their four children, watching the Central PA 4th Fest fireworks display near Beaver Stadium.

In the confusion of the holiday celebrations, it took the building manager and emergency officials hours to account for all of the more than 40 residents who called the apartment complex home.

Alpha Fire Company Chief Jeff Martin confirmed Friday morning there were no injuries in the blaze. But many residents, even those who were home, escaped with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.

Many of those displaced Thursday were Penn State graduate students or researchers. At least 12 of the families were connected with the university and were offered temporary housing in campus dormitories.

Romayne Naylor, the emergency services manager for the local chapter of the American Red Cross, said the relief organization has been able to offer emergency housing options for the rest of the families affected.

“Everyone we’ve been in contact with has a roof over their head and some financial assistance to meet their immediate needs,” said Naylor, who along with Red Cross volunteers arrived at the fire late Thursday.

Lee said Friday he was thankful his family was safe and grateful for the support from Penn State and the Red Cross. But while belongings can be replaced, 10 years worth of data perhaps cannot.

“That stuff is nothing,” Lee said. “My priority is in my computer. There is 10 years of research in there. I don’t want to lose that one.”

Complicating matters for Lee, a native of South Korea who studied materials science and engineering at Penn State, is that he was offered a position in his native country and was set to return next week.

“It’s unbelievable,” he said.

Firefighters remained at the scene Friday morning, and residents such as Lee, who were hoping to assess the damage in their own apartments, were not allowed to enter the weakened structure.

One Alpha fire engine was in the building’s parking lot for much of the day. Fire crews and a state police fire marshal could be seen inspecting the damage behind building 470, which is reportedly a total loss. Parts of the roof collapsed overnight, and only a shell of the upper structure remained.

Martin said the cause of the fire had not been determined Friday, and he did not provide a time frame for when that information might be available.

Residents of neighboring building 460 were evacuated Thursday, but were allowed back into their apartments by early Friday morning, a resident at the scene said.

Virginia Brown, executive of the local Red Cross chapter, called the fire a “significant one for a chapter of our size.”

“This is a big operation for us,” Brown said. “(Volunteers) were very well organized (Thursday) night and got things going quickly so they could give the assistance that was needed.”

A Penn State spokesman confirmed Friday that 12 graduate students and their families, including spouses and children, were offered housing on campus. Three families had taken the offer as of Friday afternoon.

“We are thankful that no one was injured ...,” spokesman Reidar Jensen said. “They are welcome to stay until they are able to find permanent housing.”

American Red Cross officials said those interested in donating to the organization can do so by mailing a check to the relief organization at 205 E. Beaver Ave., Suite 203, State College, PA 16801, by taking a check in person or online at

The money, officials said, helps the Red Cross provide assistance to those affected by the Waupelani Drive fire and also the next emergency locally.