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'Honey, the Ceiling's Falling In'

Fire Drills:

By Peter Shapiro

A tenant family in a Harvard-owned building received a rather rude surprise Monday afternoon. While baby-sitting for their one-year-old daughter in their basement apartment, Mimi and William Nixon noticed that plaster was starting to fall from their ceiling. Climbing upstairs, the Nixons discovered that a brigade of Cambridge Fire Department trainees was busily hacking away at the second and third floors of the building.

Deputy Fire Chief Francis Murphy explained that Harvard had told him that the building was empty and could be used for firefighting training. When the Nixons told Murphy that the building was still inhabited, he called off the trainees who had by then transformed the building's third floor into a shambles of plaster and wood.

The building--located at 3 Howard St.--has been slated for demolition since the University acquired it last September to make way for a Harvard financed community housing project. Donald C. Moulton, coordinater for Community Affairs, said that he didn't know exactly what caused the incident. "This was just a crossing of wires," he explained.

The issue has been further complicated by the circumstances of the Nixons' tenancy. As Moulton tells it, the Nixons have never had a formal contract for the apartment and thus Harvard's obligation to help them find a new apartment is not as great as it might be. The Nixons, however, maintain that because they have paid rent, Harvard is bound to help.

Moulton said that Harvard is willing to assist in relocation, but added that he thinks the Nixons "haven't been working too hard" at finding a new place. "We've been looking for every incentive to get them to leave," Moulton said. He was quick to add, though, that Monday's fire drill was not one of these incentives.

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