Broken water pipe forces quick cleanup at Hirt Center

The quick and thorough work of the Mercyhurst College maintenance and housekeeping staff allowed classes to meet as usual in the Audrey Hirt Academic Center despite a water pipe break that flooded all three floors of the building early on Thursday, Feb. 13.

After a water pipe in the south wall of the tower of the building broke a little after 5 a.m., the entire Hirt Center was temporarily closed by Mercyhurst officials for safety reasons and cleaning.

Nearly 2 ˝ inches of water covered the third floor of the building after a water pipe that is part of the sprinkler system froze and cracked, triggering an automatic fire alarm in the building at 5:01 a.m. that brought Mercyhurst security to the Hirt Center.

After responding to the fire alarm, the Erie Fire Department, Mercyhurst physical plant director Kenneth Stepherson and college security checked the building for any hidden dangers. Firefighters then helped pump water from the center before leaving campus about 7 a.m. and turning the clean-up effort over to Mercyhurst housekeeping and maintenance. Those efforts went smoothly and 8 a.m. classes went on as scheduled.

According to Stepherson, damages will be evaluated after cleanup is complete, however early indications are that a handful of computers might have been impacted, and several areas of the third floor will need new ceiling tiles.

Cleanup stretched throughout the building since the Hirt Academic Center is an open stairway building and water flowed easily off the third floor balcony and down through the main staircases to the lowest level of the building. The impact of that flooding seemed to have been limited to wet carpets and floors.

“This could have been much worse,” said Stepherson, who has only been plant manager at Mercyhurst College since the beginning of February. He explained that the water flowing through the sprinkler system to maintain pressure had automatically activated the fire alarm. With several thousand gallons of water being pumped through the building, finding the break and turning off the water supply had been an important factor in limiting damages to the building, he added.

By 8 a.m., classes were in session in the Hirt Academic Center and the general contractor for the building, Building Systems Inc., was evaluating the situation along with Stepherson. Damage assessments were not expected until at least Friday, Feb. 14.

The three-story, all-brick Hirt Academic Center was designed by Weber Murphy Fox architects and houses 16 classrooms, 20 faculty offices and several labs. The education and psychology departments are on the top floor of Hirt, with the Gabreski Honors Suite and the entrance to the Walker Recital Hall on the main floor. The college’s communication department, a graphic arts laboratory, the studios for Hurst TV and offices for the Merciad and senior annual are situated on the ground floor of the center.

The Hirt Academic Center, which cost $7.5 million to build, was officially dedicated on Sunday, Oct. 27, 2002, after construction started in early summer 2001.
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