AIC students, staff continue to adapt following fire at health science building

Almost two months after lightning struck and fire erupted at the health science building at AIC, the school is still picking up the pieces.
Published: Sep. 25, 2023 at 9:50 PM EDT
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SPRINGFIELD, MA (WGGB/WSHM) - Almost two months after lightning struck and fire erupted at the health science building at American International College, the school is still picking up the pieces as students return back to campus.

“My friend actually texted me because we were living on-campus for the summer. They were like ‘The school is on fire,’” said third year occupational therapist student Marieliz Falu.

It’s been almost two months since lightning struck and a fire tore through Courniotes Hall on the AIC campus. The damage left about 400 students and staff in the health science program without a permanent learning place for the start of the fall semester.

“A lot of questions obviously came to mind. Are we going to have a traditional semester? Are we going to be online? Where are classes going to be held - clinicals, lab simulations?” said junior nursing student Chrissy Valentino.

Students in the health science program now praising the college for their efficiency in relocation efforts as their classrooms were destroyed, along with the valuable learning equipment inside.

“All of our classes, our schedule, everything has remained the same thankfully because all of our classes were supposed to be in the building that did have the fire,” said senior nursing student Jessica Shiers.

“UMass was very, very helpful in reaching out to the school and allowing us to use their simulation lab here in downtown Springfield, so we don’t have to travel to Amherst. It allows us to get our hands-on skills, all of the practicals we need to take for clinical not only for the junior class, but soon to be sophomore class as well,” Valentino added.

Several offices for staff members were also destroyed by the fire. It’s something that was one of the biggest challenges for staff to figure out.

“It was where I got my first opportunity to be an OT student, where I talked to my first official advisor there. Just knowing that their offices are all gone to just having that safe and comfortable space was also hard at first, but then I realized it’s not always about the space. Sometimes, it’s more about the people and the connections you build,” Falu added.

“It’s amazing how nurse educators across the state reached out to us to say what can we do to help you in many office space or equipment, so to come together to make sure students’ education wasn’t interrupted,” said AIC Dean of Health Sciences Karen Rousseau.

Rousseau told Western Mass News how staff has adapted to the changes.

“There’s a new area for all the nursing faculty to be located, so they are all together, which works out best for students, so they can go to the one building to see the faculty rather than across campus and the same with the physical therapy and occupational therapy faculty that we’re displaced. That all kind of worked and came together in an amazing way,” Rousseau noted.

Meanwhile, AIC President Hubert Benitez shared what the future looks like for Courniotes Hall.

“First is the securing of the building. Now is cleaning up the building, which we’re almost finalizing that stage and then we are doing a full audit of what was there in order to rebuild the building as it was and reimagine it for the future,” Benitez explained. “The entire project, in its entirety, may take up to 18 or 24 months, so the immediate aspect is rebuilding laboratories. We anticipate and hope that our in-house laboratories will be built within this academic year and start offering our simulation experiences on the AIC campus for the fall of 2024.”

He also shared his hopes for the college to move forward as they are still left to pick up the pieces from the fire.

“It was the most tragic event in the colleges 138-year history,” Benitez said. “We are going to rebuild better as it was, so it’s only a voice of optimism, voice of hope, voice that we will come back, and we will come back stronger.”