The fire in the TW/RC building

The morning of 20 November 2002 is etched into the memories of many University of Twente staff, students and alumni: that was when a raging fire turned a large section of the then TW/RC building (now Cubicus) to ash. It was later found to be a case of arson – by a university employee, no less.

Cubicus – formerly the TW/RC, which was the abbreviation of Toegepaste Wiskunde en RekenCentrum (Applied Mathematics and Calculation Centre) – used to be twice its current size. By about 7:30 a.m. on 20 November 2002, when the first signs of fire were noticed and the alarm was raised, it was already too late: before the eyes of hundreds of horrified staff and students, half the building went up in flames. Both the A and D wing, which housed the department of Philosophy, the Applied Mathematics educational programme and the central server area of what was then the CIV service department (now LISA), were burned to the ground, as was the ‘core’ of the university’s data network and the data centre. And of course everything else in the building was lost along with it: research material, exam papers, the personal belongings of staff and students. Ultimately, the total damage from the fire came to somewhere between €40 million and €50 million. The one blessing was that no one was injured.

Because the university’s computer network had gone up in flames, the University of Twente vanished from the internet. Even before the fire had been completely put out, lorries were on their way to make sure that the IT facilities would get back up and running as soon as possible. The silver lining was that plans were already in place for a second computer area and data centre with a wireless network in the Seinhuis, and this area was available for use until the damage was repaired. The university was lucky that there were two trunks – not exactly high-tech storage units! – containing all the back-up files for the servers that had been destroyed in the TW-RC building fire. For the next week, university staff worked around the clock to restore all the data that had been stored centrally and to get the network back up and running.

On the morning of the fire, Communication Studies lecturer Mirjam Galetzka had planned to tell colleagues she was pregnant. In the end she didn’t get round to informing them that day; instead, she was hoisted to the roof of the largely destroyed building to rescue a box of exam papers that had only just been taken. The box, soaked through by water from the fire engines, was taken to a business that freeze-dried the exam papers in an attempt to save them. Although the paper was discoloured and the letters were smudged, in the end it was possible to mark the exams. ‘I still think it was a publicity stunt by the rector at the time, Frans van Vught,’ said Galetzka later in an interview with U-Today. ‘I was asked to see what could still be saved, so I had to put on a helmet and get in a tub to help the firemen by working out what was still worth saving.’

Hardly anyone could have predicted that the fire would turn out to have been started by a young assistant systems manager for applied mathematics. He was arrested three days after starting the fire, and was ultimately sentenced to three years in prison and detention under a hospital order.

On 9 March 2004, rector Frans van Vught literally dotted the last I in the wordmark of the renovated Cubicus, officially reopening the building 18 months after the fire. The place where the A and D wings once stood is now the site of the P2 car park. The remaining B and C wings have kept their original names: the fact that A and D are missing from the list is a reminder of the fire, and of everything that was lost.

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