ALPHA UPSILON BURNS
The inferno “should have killed us all,” says one of the last brothers to escape
Jerry Anderson’s little brother and roommate Andy Jessup, Jr. may’ve saved his life.
“I was the last guy out” of the chapter house, Jerry says, on that September night in 1986 when Alpha Upsilon went up in flames. “Our room was at the very end of the upper floor farthest from where I believe the fire started,“ he says remembering that awful night. Because Jerry had to get up very early every morning for water polo practice, he was good at sleeping deeply each night and blocking out the noise. But, at 1:30am on that Thursday, an inferno broke out and Andy had to repeatedly pound on their door to get Jerry to wake up.
The fire “should have killed us all” Andy says, urgency in his words 37 years later.
Andy "kept telling me about the fire,” Jerry says, “but I didn’t believe him that the fire was that dire of a situation.” The fire happened on a Thursday night which were notorious for being the best party nights. "So living in the house made me use to loud noises and commotion, especially on Thursdays. I just assumed it would get put out and did not want to give up sleep for a little fire. I trusted that Andy was on it so when he came back the third time and said we must get out now, I did not resist further."
Once everyone was awake and scurrying to escape, no one’s life was in danger. And no one was injured – except for the chapter house. The wood paneling of the era and the overload of cassette tape decks, CD players, big speakers, microwaves and refrigerators in nearly every room was like lighting a match. The house was built, some alums now say, rather cheaply which may have contributed to the fire. The official cause from the fire department was wiring.
“You’re just kind of in shock,” remembers Jerry. “And then I called my parents and said ‘um, the house is totally engulfed in flames. I’ve got nowhere to go.’ ‘Well, are you okay?’ Yea!’”
Andy Jessup, Jr. was a chapter leader and helped evacuate his roommate and big brother Jerry Anderson as well as other brothers in the chapter house the night of the fire.
All the Sigs got out, and a couple of college girls were seen fleeing as well. All anyone could do is stand around and watch the fire department try to save the chapter house. While they did get the fire out, everyone had to move to other housing for more than a year. An unleased apartment building nearby became the temporary housing for many of the brothers, according to Jerry. At the chapter house, only the common areas, the kitchen and the patio were unscathed. In fact, the Sigs continued to meet at the house and throw parties, not letting a charred chapter house stop them from being fraternity guys.
One of the most popular songs the Sigs played at AU parties after the fire? Jerry says it was Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House.”
Jerry has had a successful commercial real estate career and Andy heads his family’s auto dealerships.
A generation after the fire, Jerry’s son and Andy’s son both became AU Sigs together – and big brother and little brother to each other, just like their dads.
About all the remained unscathed inside the burned portions of the house was this Norman Shield.
As the rubble was pulled out of the charred remains of the house was a Sigma Chi manual, a poignant reminder of the damage.
Brother Jerry Anderson, among the last to get out of the chapter house during that 1986 fire, is with his wife and Alpha Upsilon Sig son who is big brother, little brother with Andy Jessup, Jr.'s son - just like their dads.
A Sigma Chi shirt hangs out the window in a charred room upstairs the next morning after the fire.