It was a day of mourning to begin with. Then things got worse.
A funeral and a memorial service on Jan. 2, 2002 - one for a student, another a beloved professor - made the bitterly cold day even more numbing for the SMSU community.
The funeral was for SMSU wrestler Dan Ourada. The memorial service was for SMSU psychology professor Cathy Cowan. Both were killed in separate car accidents during the semester break.
Athletics Communications Director Kelly Loft was riding with then-Director of Athletics Butch Raymond and then-President David Danahar coming home from the Ourada funeral, held in Wabasso. It was about noon. They were east of the curves by Sky Printing on Highway 19 when they noticed the smoke.
"I thought it might be from the corn plant initially, but it just didn't look right," said Loft, recalling the day. "The smoke was right in front of us (instead of off to the right), and I remember we commented how we didn't recall seeing that before."
That smoke quickly turned into a lot more smoke, then flames, and by the time the roof of the old Food Service East building collapsed at about 4 p.m., the building was a total loss and the campus was inundated with smoke damage that would effectively close the university and take all employees and students on an emotional rollercoaster over the next several weeks.
Today it's simply referred to as "The Fire."
The students were on break at the time. This was pre-Twitter, and many learned of the fire from news reports. Helicopters from television stations in the Twin Cities and Sioux Falls, S.D. hovered overhead shooting footage as firemen from at least five departments battled the blaze on the ground.
Fire Chief Marc Klaith still calls it the most destructive and expensive fire he's been associated with.
In speaking to people today about that event - and the weeks that followed - each recalls something different. The first thing they say is "Was that 10 years ago already?" Then each tells his or her own story. It's funny what people remember.
I was sitting in my third-floor Founders Hall office when the phone rang. On the other end was then-Independent editor Dana Yost. "You got another fire out there huh?" he asked in a joking voice. The university had had a fire in the Education library a couple of months previous.
He was listening to the scanner at the newspaper. My office window - how I miss that office - did not face that direction, so I went downstairs, out the door of Founders, glanced to my left, and saw the smoke beginning to bellow.
I had purchased about 20 or so rolls of film - this was pre-digital camera days, folks - for our 35 mm camera just a week or so earlier. Thank goodness, because I used every last one of them that day.
There weren't a lot of people around campus then. The Admissions office was having a holiday potluck and many wandered outside. Little did they know that their jobs would become much more difficult in the next couple of years as they recruited students to a university that was suddenly without a food service area or a student center.
Rich Shearer, admissions director at that time, recalled how his office temporarily moved to Bremer Bank.
"Gloria (Thompson) and Julie (Leese) loaded up files in their cars and drove to Minnesota West in Granite Falls and got on (the MnSCU system database) and processed applications. Our counselors worked out of their homes.
"It sounds corny, but the campus community came together, something Southwest has always done," added Shearer, now head of admissions at St. Cloud State.
The weather was bitterly cold. And the spotlights put in place to guide workers demolishing the building cast an eerie blue hue.
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the recovery is the fact that just two weeks of spring semester classes were lost.
The fire's heat was intense, and continued to smolder for days. Because of asbestos, the smoldering debris was taken out one bucketful at a time to the parking lot and sprinkled with snow to quell the heat. The debris was then loaded onto trucks and given an escort to a special landfill near Hutchinson that accepted asbestos debris. On more than one occasion, the load would re-ignite because of the rush of oxygen along the way.
Within a couple of weeks, the old Multi-Purpose Room in the spine of the R/A Facility was turned into campus dining. Food preparation trailers were hard to find because many were out in Salt Lake City for the Olympics.
Offices were relocated, and Service Master dispatched a huge fleet of workers to clean buildings, which were opened up, one by one, in the weeks following.
"What I remember was what an awful day it was for President Danahar," said Dr. Jan Loft, interim Dean of the College of Arts, Letters and Sciences. A faculty member at the time, she lived next door to Cowan and was asked by President Danahar to speak on behalf of the university at Cowan's memorial service. "He went to the funeral for Danny Ourada and was coming back for the memorial service for Cathy, and then the fire occurred. I remember he was seated in such a place (at Wesley United Methodist Church) that I could see him getting updates about the fire. He eventually had to leave."
President Danahar, who retired at the end of June 2011, is aware of the fact that the fire and its aftermath have in many ways defined his presidency. Is that really fair? Not really, no. But like it or not, he was the one with the vision who guided the reconstruction efforts after the fire and oversaw the other projects that have transformed the campus since that day 10 years ago.
Everyone takes a different memory from that day, and there's consensus that from that disaster has been born a new campus, and a new spirit, at SMSU.