Consecutive fires strike MAC

Stage curtain in the MAC theatre ignites twice in under 12 hours

Sophomore Bela Tapperson inspects the charred curtain Tuesday morning. Tapperson was shocked when she saw the Austin Fire Departments post about the second fire on twitter. I thought it was a mistake at first, Tapperson said. There were like 6 fire trucks here [yesterday] and we thought they put it all out. Photo by Kelsey Tasch.

Kelsey Tasch

Sophomore Bela Tapperson inspects the charred curtain Tuesday morning. Tapperson was shocked when she saw the Austin Fire Department’s post about the second fire on twitter. “I thought it was a mistake at first,” Tapperson said. “There were like 6 fire trucks here [yesterday] and we thought they put it all out.” Photo by Kelsey Tasch.

Janssen Transier and Kristen Tibbetts

To prepare for their program concert on Saturday, the McCallum Youth Dance Company rehearsed in the MAC theatre Monday night. Everything seemed to be running as usual, until students began to smell smoke at the start of the second act.

While junior Tosh Arora and senior Liliette Rodriguez’s rehearsed their duet on stage, dance teacher Ms. Nat assumed the strange fogginess hovering around stage left was light reflecting off of dust particles in the air. A few minutes later, when students began to complain about a burning smell, Ms. Nat began to investigate.

“We thought that there was a curtain that was touching a light,” Nat said. “We thought we had moved it well enough away [from the curtain].”

According to Ms. Nat and multiple tech theatre students, it is not uncommon for the curtain to heat up and smell burnt. After moving the light so that it was not in direct contact with the curtain, everyone assumed the problem was solved. Not finding any burns on the curtain, the rehearsal continued.

When junior Mary Roe went on stage after Arora and Rodriguez, however, both the smoke and the smell had not fully dissipated.

“I was getting a little nervous,” sophomore Bela Tapperson said, sitting in the audience at the time. “But we kept going with rehearsing the piece.”

Students stand outside after evacuating the MAC, waiting for the fire department to finish clearing the smoke out of the building. Photo by Dave Winter.

Meanwhile, the smoke continued to get worse. While seniors Chloe Shields and Belle O’Quinn, juniors Connie Pierce and Blair Kinsey, and sophomore Nelle Kanewske were on stage, they assumed there was a fog machine backstage.

“I was on stage dancing, and I have asthma, so I asked if we could turn the smoke machines off because I couldn’t breathe,” Pierce said. “We were dancing and running around and talking, and everyone was breathing in smoke.”

Because of some technical difficulties with the music, the dancers had to restart their piece multiple times. After only a few minutes of being onstage, all of them were very uncomfortable.

“You could smell everything, like burning s’mores, but disgusting.” Shields said. “And, it was really heavy, you couldn’t breathe in it.”

Ms. Nat eventually called the five dancers to wait in the audience so that they could get out of the smoke.

“At first I thought someone had lit a match or something,” Kinsey said. “But then the smell was a lot worse. I was thinking ‘This can’t be right, there’s smoke everywhere’.”

Sophomore Corin Vandenberg entered the theatre just as the curtain caught fire. He and Bela Tapperson rushed to the stage as Ms. Nat called 911, pulled the fire alarm, and tried to usher her students outside. At the same time, juniors Blair Kinsey and Mia Terminella hurried backstage to warn everyone in the dressing rooms to evacuate.

“It was literally all happening at once.” Nat said.

I’m still feeling very shaken up. I tried my best to make the right decisions at the right times and make sure everyone was safe. And luckily everyone is safe.

— Ms. Nat

Because the smoke was coming from a spot on the curtain about 10 feet above the ground, Vandenberg ran to the fly rail to lower it.

When it was low enough, Tapperson opened the folded curtain.

“There was this ‘shoom!” and it glowed bright red,” Tapperson said. “I ran around and grabbed the fire extinguisher and started to put it out.”

“The scariest part was not knowing what it was until we opened up the curtain.” Vandenberg added.

Luckily, the nearest fire extinguisher was close by, on the the other side of the curtain near the front of the stage.

“I was really alarmed at first,” Tapperson said. “But then I stayed calm and I helped put it out.”

Unfortunately, the powder inside the extinguisher made it even more difficult for the students to breathe, so after a while Tapperson passed the extinguisher off to Vandenberg.

“It was very hard inhaling all of that,” Vandenberg said. “We were both in tears from the smoke.”

Not long afterwards, the fire extinguisher ran out of powder and Tapperson and Vandenberg were forced to evacuate along with the rest of the students.

Within minutes, the fire department was there to take care of the rest of the fire and search the area for embers. EMS trucks also arrived and evaluated Pierce because of her asthma. Other students waited outside for the building to be cleared to enter, not knowing what was going on or when they’d be able to go back in to get their backpacks. According to Ms. Nat, by around 9 p.m., the fire department deemed the building safe to reenter and estimated that there was around $600 worth of damage.

Firefighters investigate the building after putting out the second fire. Photo courtesy of the Austin Fire Department.

However, at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday morning, there was a second fire.

According to principal Mike Garrison, head custodian Daniel Sena found smoke coming from the MAC and immediately called 911, the second time that the fire department arrived at McCallum in less than 12 hours. The portion of the curtain that had not been taken down the previous night had reignited, causing severe damage to the curtain and burning a small section of the stage floor.

According to Ms. Nat, the most likely scenario is that an ember from the first fire flew into the fly rail and was not found Monday night. It is assumed that the ember reignited the curtain sometime during the night, but how this happened is still unknown. All classes that usually meet in the MAC theatre were moved to the cafeteria for the week and the dance rehearsals and performance are being moved to the AISD Performing Arts Center.

“I’m still feeling very shaken up.” Nat said. “I tried my best to make the right decisions at the right times and make sure everyone was safe. And luckily everyone is safe.”

The remainder of the curtain, covered in ash, after the second fire. Photo by Kelsey Tasch.

Ms. Nat agrees that there should be more fire safety training for everyone who uses the theatre. Tapperson and Vandenberg had received training during their tech theatre one class last year with Ms. Kieler, where, among other things, they learned how to properly use a fire extinguisher.

“Of all the people to put out a fire, it would be Bela Tapperson and Corin.” Blair Kinsey said.

All involved agreed that Tapperson and Vandenberg were the heroes of the night with their quick thinking and excellent understanding of how to use the equipment.

“If they hadn’t been there to extinguish the fire, I don’t know what would have happened,” Nat said. “I’m really thankful for them being there.”