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Officials plead with students to refrain from setting post-game

by Joedy McCreary

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Students at West Virginia University often celebrate exhilarating football victories and mourn heartbreaking defeats the same way: By setting the streets of Morgantown on fire.

Twice in less than 12 months, streets in the low-rent, student-dominated neighborhood of Sunnyside filled with a smoky haze as students burned couches, garbage and anything they could find after nationally televised weeknight football games.

So, on the eve of West Virginia's biggest home football game of the season -- tonight's nationally televised contest against No. 3 Virginia Tech -- Morgantown officials are spraying cold water on the 20-year-old fire tradition.

The fires "have taken on a life of their own," Morgantown Fire Chief David Fetty said Monday. "The games continue to be a catalyst, but they're not the only catalyst. ... I don't understand it, and I don't condone it, but those are the facts."

Firefighters were issuing more than 200 citations Monday and Tuesday to residents with fire hazards outside their homes, including excessive garbage and couches on porches, Fetty said. Violators refusing to comply face $1,000 fines, and city workers have been ordered to remove hazardous items, he said.

Most citations were issued in Sunnyside and along High Street, the downtown avenue on which many fraternity and sorority houses are located, he said.

WVU student Alex Matzureff, a graduate student in secondary education and history, said Morgantown has been frenzied all week -- so frenzied that his economics professor pleaded with his class Monday to preserve the town.

"He said, 'Whatever you do, don't burn down Morgantown. We want to have someplace left when we go to class Thursday,'" Matzureff said.

Steve Hill, who runs a used furniture store, said he once sold five sofas during a weekend marked by couch fires.

"A lot of times, they burn everything in sight," Hill said.

Students typically don't purchase couches specifically to burn them, Hill said. Instead, they ignite their existing sofas, then purchase replacements.

The pyromaniacal practice began about 20 years ago with large bonfires in Sunnyside after football games, Fetty said. As bars closed in the dilapidated neighborhood the locals call "Scummyside," the fires spread to downtown, he said.

Now the blazes are more frequent but not as intense, the chief said. Most recently, rowdy students set couches and garbage in Sunnyside aflame after WVU's 21-18 win over Virginia Tech last November and after the Mountaineers' 22-20 loss to No. 2 Miami on Oct. 2.

Since 1997, more than 900 fires have been set in town, Fetty said.

"The Sunnyside tradition continues," Fetty said sarcastically.

Ken Gray, WVU's vice president for student affairs, said that this week local fire, police and university officials are standing united in a zero-tolerance policy against fires and destruction of property.

WVU officials have been pleading with students and fans to act responsibly.

Coach Rich Rodriguez left recorded messages on some people's answering machines, taped a video message to be shown on the stadium's scoreboard and made other requests through the media, imploring fans to behave.

Wednesday night's Big East contest is WVU's first home night game since August 2002 and the school's first nationally televised home night game since a Maryland-WVU game Sept. 19, 1998, when whiskey bottles and golf balls thrown onto the field prompted school officials to tighten student ticketing procedures.