Sunday, August 31, 2014

APSA on Fire

There's got to be a morning after
By Julia Azari 

As many of you probably know, the main APSA hotel had a fire evacuation on Friday night. The situation lasted about 7 hours. There were no serious injuries and the conference resumed on Saturday. It was, to say the least, a very bizarre event. Below is my account of the events. The timeline probably has some inaccuracies, and I would welcome corrections, as well as any additional stories or impressions that people want to share, in the comments. I've intentionally left sartorial commentary to others. 

1 AM – the fire alarm rings. Lilly Goren, my conference roommate, and I mumble confirmations that it is indeed an alarm and I start rummaging around in my suitcase with no real purpose.  Lilly takes charge of the situation and tells me to grab our room key, even though she has already put on shoes and I have not.

1:02 AM – I walk down six flights of stairs carrying my phone, our room key, and my shoes.

1:10 AM – We wander into the outside courtyard, where several fire trucks have pulled up. I look around for people to see if anyone has visibly been interrupted in the throes of an illicit love affair. I didn’t see that, but I did see some fire trucks.

1:30 AM – I run into (fellow Mischiefs) Seth and Jen. Jen and I had never actually met in person and I had hoped that we would meet at this APSA, while I was wearing clothes and drinking a tasty beverage. But it was still nice to meet her while milling around in a parking lot in our pyjamas.

They also confirmed that there was an actual fire and that a mutual friend had inhaled some smoke.

I dismiss the idea of leading a Poseidon Adventure sing along. 

2AM – Lilly and I see Routledge editor Michael Kerns, who was accompanied by his children, and feel frustrated at our inability to do anything to help him or any of the other people who are trying to get through the situation with kids.

Hotel personnel hand out sheets to people who are cold.

ETA: At some point in this general timeframe, Lilly and I spot a person who looks more or less like our friend and coauthor Justin Vaughn sleeping on a bench on the lawn. We decide our observation at a distance is reliable enough, and don't seek confirmatory evidence. Rumor has it that he rolled off the bench later in the night, but I don't have confirmation of that either. 

Shortly thereafter, a hotel representative tells us that we can go in the building to use the restrooms in the lobby. I had been weighing using the impeccably landscaped bushes versus trying to sneak into one of the bars with no money wearing my toothpaste-stained pyjamas, so I was pretty grateful for this.  

On the way back from the restroom I have a joyous reunion with some friends from grad school, and then it occurs to me that since my phone is completely dead, I have no way to tell Lilly why it’s taking me so long to get back to our meeting spot. I have not been this untethered in years.

3:30 AM I start to tell myself that things look promising, although no one has any idea what’s actually happening. We’re back in the building and I have a surprisingly satisfying nap on the mezzanine level, but am starting to get jealous of people who brought ipads.

I feel confident that I’ll be returning to my room soon, and start to worry that the firemen who are tromping by will step on my glasses.

4AM –  It turns out that big groups of firemen going back into the building in heavy gear isn’t a good sign.
The fire alarm starts going off again. We shuffle outside, many of us wearing white sheets, so we look like either an audition for a Peanuts Halloween special or a very unenergetic  - and shockingly diverse - Klan meeting. (Please make diversity jokes in comments.)

4:30 – It’s not clear what is going on, so some people shuffle back in. Other people commit to sleeping on the lawn outside, but that seems… wet, so I head back in. Lilly and I find the charging station and rejoice, until we realize that it doesn’t work very well. People are pretty polite as we take turns using the only iphone charger that (sort of) works. I wonder when this pre-fire alarm civility will disintegrate.

ETA: I just remembered that during this part of the evening, Lilly and I had an in-depth discussion about Rick Perlstein and his books. 

At this point, the fire alarm is still going off. Some people are sleeping throughout the lobby and the area near the registration tables and escalators. Others are using their phones or ipads, propping themselves up against signs directing us to the book room and the theme sessions. The vestiges of APSA start to look like ancient ruins from a now-extinct society whose priorities are beyond our comprehension.

The fire alarm continues to bleat. My phone gets about 4% charged, and I take the opportunity to tweet:

Can someone please turn the fucking fire alarm off? #APSA2014

4:45 AM The fire alarm stops. As my phone loses power, I receive several replies that my tweet worked. I abandon my methodological training and take the credit. This makes me feel better about the wisdom of tweeting obscenities directed at the organization that controls a great deal of my professional life. 

Things quiet down and people start to fall asleep. Hotel staff come around and ask people if they need blankets or anything else, take our garbage, and go about their business cleaning the bathrooms.  It occurs to me that as we complain about exhaustion and 7:30 panels, this is the shift that these folks work every day. Probably for about $9/hour. They were kind, polite, and proactive as they served our needs. For all the hierarchies that were temporarily leveled that night, this one remained.

5AM My social justice thoughts recede as I’m overcome with the need to get on Twitter. I head over to the Cengage-provided email stations and fire up Internet Explorer 6. Several police officers, with a dog, pass by.

Rumors that the fires were intentional start to circulate.

5:15AM – We are told to go into a ballroom for a debriefing. We crowd into the room, and the fire chief starts to talk and then asks that someone from the Marriott join him on the stage. We are informed that there is a “serious situation” in the hotel, but that we are not in any danger.  Arson rumors were not confirmed, but the fire chief tells us that we can probably discern what’s happening.

The fire chief and the police chief give some fairly vague instructions about what will happen next, but it’s indicated that we will have to get our things and leave the hotel. We’re told that if we want to leave as we are, we are free to go (someone had already asked if we were being detained, and the answer was no), and that if we have friends in the area we may want to do that, as long as we are willing to abandon our possessions for the next five or six hours.

We are promised food and coffee, and they tell us they are looking into putting on a movie. (The food and coffee materialized but the movie never did.) Although we are not being detained, they ask that we stay in the ballrooms and use only one set of restrooms, so that no one “slips out.”

As minimal as this information is, it’s the first time we’ve been assembled and given any real information.

People start to yell at the various authorities on the stage. I silently debate whether the faction that I am going to lead will focus on hoarding the water or controlling access to the restrooms as our strategy when order breaks down.

The head of the Presidency and Executive Politics section sits down next me in the ballroom, and we briefly chat about what’s going to happen at our section’s business meeting later. I then loudly and confidently inform him that the business meeting will not happen, because the conference is definitely over at this point. It cannot possibly continue, I tell him. In fact, the discipline itself may be never be able to reconstitute fully. We will never recover from this.

I may have been a little sleep-deprived at that point.

The hotel manager informs us that panels have been canceled at the Marriott until noon. People who have flights to catch get in line to be “expedited.”

It occurs to me that we are probably going to be questioned, since the situation seems to be that someone has tried to set the hotel on fire and they still don’t know who. A couple of years ago I was in a coffee shop and someone tried to hold it up. There were about 15 people there, and we were all told to stay put for questioning. That took two hours. I contemplate the fact that APSA 2015 may have a very low rejection rate because some of us will still be in the ballroom when the abstract deadline passes.

6:30 AM I spot Thad Hall, who had been pretty close to one of the fires and inhaled some smoke. I’m extremely glad to see him until he takes a picture of me and posts it on Facebook.

7AM I wander into the area with coffee, figuring that I’m already jittery and agitated so I might as well run with it. I run into Dave Hopkins, who I’m always glad to see, but especially so at that moment, because many of my other companions are falling asleep (understandably) and I’m too jittery.

I repeat my theory that the conference is over, there will be no panels today, or possibly ever again. We agree to sit down and not talk about work, and then talk about work for about 20 minutes. I blather incoherently to him about how he should read Robert Mason’s book about the Republican Party.

Usually I’m pretty interested in contradictions, but I try not to dwell on the whole “someone tried to burn down the hotel and kill you all, and we haven’t caught that person, but also we’re all safe” thing.

7:45 AM We are informed that we’re free to go back to our rooms and stay there (or go where ever else we want.) Someone asks if a suspect has been apprehended, and that has not happened. But we’re told we’re perfectly safe and free to go, and that panels will resume at 9, not noon.

8AM Some of my fellow Mischiefs went out to breakfast, but I went back to my room to tweet out my nervous energy and get some sleep.

Seth and Greg at a post-fire breakfast

I still don’t know what actually happened.

I am grateful to Lilly Goren, who in addition to being an excellent companion throughout the whole situation, has helped me recall the timeline and events, and otherwise craft this post.


  1. Much more drama on some upper levels. I was on 8th floor. Huge crowd at nearest exit stairs. Stairs were jam packed and hardly moving. And then more people arrived announcing that smoke was pouring out of other stairway. Many panicked and freaked-out people. Eventually a group on our floor discovered the 3rd exit stairs which were entirely clear, but I heard from a friend it took her and her family 20 minutes to get down the crowded stairway. Also, many of us returned to rooms up emergency stairs when we saw that hotel let people in the lobby, not realizing the intention was lobby only. Many returned back down shortly due to new fire alarm (which apparently did not cover the whole building). But I have multiple friends who heard no further alarms and slept in rooms until police/firefighters went door-to-door after 6:30am.

  2. Glad I stayed at the State Plaza Hotel. I saved 50% and got a good night's sleep. But my Saturday morning panel had some problems. Rick Hasen was supposed to moderate it, but, apparently due to lack of sleep, he forgot to introduce each speaker by name. Instead, after each panelist stopped speaking, he just nodded to the next one. Now my notes read "Next Guy said ... Guy after that said ..." Since there was only one woman on a panel of about 10, my notes record "Heather Gerken said ..." But since she slept on the floor in the lobby, she was too tired to say much (less note taking for me). I suppose the unforeseeable consequences of the fire will approach what philosophers call a Denumerable Infinity."


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