President O'Hara's letter to students

Office of the President

July 20, 2006

Dear Roanoke Student: 

As a student at Roanoke College you are an important part of our community, and so I wanted to contact you directly to update you on the tragic accident that occurred on our campus last Friday. As you may have heard, a buildup of carbon monoxide in one of our residence halls sent more than 100 people to the hospital and may have contributed to the death of a 91-year-old retired pastor. Those affected were participants in a summer conference of the Virginia Lutheran Synod and teenagers in a college preparatory program called Upward Bound. Fortunately, all of the people who were treated in the hospital have been released. Still, my heart goes out to those who were directly affected and to their families and especially to the family of Pastor Walter J. Vierling. They will continue to be in my thoughts and prayers.   

While no Roanoke College students were affected by this accident, it is nonetheless very unsettling not only for those of us here on campus but for our students and their families as well – and especially for you, who are an important part of the Roanoke College community.  

According to the findings of the Salem Fire Department, the carbon monoxide buildup was caused by an unexpected failure in the gas water heater system. The water heater had been inspected in October 2005, and it was certified through October 2007. I want you to know that your safety and the safety of our campus is of the utmost importance to us, and so we have taken immediate action. We are installing carbon monoxide monitors not only in all residence halls but in every building on campus. These monitors are not required by law, but we are committed to providing the safest possible environment for our students, faculty, staff and visitors. We are also inspecting all equipment that could be a potential carbon monoxide source on our campus. So whether you will be in your residence hall this fall, in a classroom building or in the dining hall, all of our buildings will have carbon monoxide monitors.  

I also have appointed a task force to research and recommend additional measures related to carbon monoxide detection and warning systems, best practices and procedures, and education on the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. 

Tragic events have a way of reminding us of what is truly important. This accident has reminded us of the special community that is Roanoke College. None of us ever want to be in a situation where we are forced to have a real-life test of our emergency procedures; but we did, and our procedures work. Everyone remained calm, caring, compassionate and professional – and everyone knew what to do. This event certainly emphasized the values of friendship, cooperation and compassion that you know we treasure at Roanoke College, and I am proud to be a part of this community. 

I know you may have questions and concerns. You can always check for updates on our college Web site at or e-mail us at

I want to make sure that you are aware of these steps the college is taking to ensure your safety and well-being and that of our campus community. Have a good summer, and I look forward to seeing you back on campus in August.


Dr. Sabine U. O’Hara


221 College Lane | Salem, Virginia 24153-3794

540-375-2200 | Fax: 540-375-2085