By Ken Kusmer
WEST LAFAYETTE — Purdue University is investigating how a utility room containing dangerous high-voltage wires was left unlocked, allowing a student to walk in and be fatally shocked, officials said Tuesday.
Purdue spokeswoman Jeanne Norberg said an autopsy suggests that Wade Steffey, 19, of Bloomington, tripped and fell behind a transformer inside the room, which is about 50 yards from where he was last seen Jan. 13 after he attended a fraternity party. He likely died instantly when he made contact with high-voltage wires, she said.
The school planned an independent investigation to find out why numerous searches of the campus and outskirts after Steffey vanished did not include a full inspection of the room.
“The search for Wade Steffey is over, but the search for answers continues,” Norberg said.
The freshman aviation technology student’s body was found Monday by a maintenance worker investigating reports of a “pinging” sound coming from Owen Hall’s utility room.
Norberg said Steffey, who did not have a pass key to the dorm, probably walked into the room after trying several doors to get into Owen Hall. Officials believe he was trying to retrieve a coat he left in a friend’s room before going to the party.
“He was apparently trying doors and found this door,” she said.
Classes resumed Monday after a week’s break on the campus in West Lafayette, just off Interstate 65, about 60 miles northwest of Indianapolis. That day, someone called campus maintenance about a noise in the utility room that powers the coed dorm that houses about 700 students.
The worker unlocked the room from inside the hall and found Steffey’s body, Norberg said. Afterward, police discovered the room’s exterior door closed but unlocked.
Norberg said officials have removed that door’s lock assembly for a forensic examination to determine whether the mechanism works.
After Steffey vanished, campus maintenance workers were believed to have checked the utility room for signs of the missing student, she said. Maintenance logs were being checked to determine exactly when it was examined, she said.
In any case, Norberg said workers did not go far enough inside the dark room about the size of a one-car garage to spot the body. The dangerous high-voltage wiring would have required them to cut power to the entire building to fully examine the area, which they did not do, she said.
Steffey’s father, Dale, said he was confident Purdue will thoroughly investigate how his son could have ended up in the room and why it wasn’t fully locked.
“That door should be locked, absolutely,” he said.
Steffey’s mother, Dawn Adams, said she was relieved that her only child’s body had been found and that she and her husband, both of whom are Bloomington stained-glass artists, had felt for some time that he was dead.
“We have the answer now, the big answer, to where our son is,” she said.
During the first few days of the search, investigators called Steffey’s cell phone and picked up its signal, which died before they could find it. That phone was found on Steffey’s clothing, Norberg said.
Jonathan Foltz, president of Purdue Student Government, said the circumstances of Steffey’s death are disturbing and need to be fully investigated.
“Why wasn’t this door locked?” he said. “I think the university has a profound obligation to keep its students out of dangerous situations, especially on university property. I’m afraid we may have failed in that regard.”
Purdue junior Shari Knight of Danville, Calif., lives in the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority across the street from Owen Hall and questioned why the room was unlocked if it was so dangerous. She said the room should have been checked more thoroughly.
“I don’t know how they missed it.”
Campus officials had organized several searches for Steffey, the most recent a ground search in the area on Sunday. Anna Hirst, an area resident who helped with the searches, described the community’s emotion on hearing the news.
“It’s absolutely devastating,” she said.