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Damage from Winthrop fire could total $50,000

Rock Hill firefighters gather in front of Johnson Hall at Winthrop University on Friday morning after putting out a fire that led to classes in the building being canceled.
Rock Hill firefighters gather in front of Johnson Hall at Winthrop University on Friday morning after putting out a fire that led to classes in the building being canceled.

A Friday morning fire damaged Winthrop University's Johnson Theatre, authorities said, causing faculty and students to evacuate and classes to be canceled.

The fire started around 8:30 a.m. on the theater's main stage inside Johnson Hall, home to the school's theater, dance and mass communication departments, said Rock Hill Fire Department Battalion Chief Mike Caudill. He said the blaze started around electrical lighting equipment at the back of the stage.

Campus officials said a piece of stage curtain was left draped over the lights, starting the fire. A student working on a project noticed the smoke and called authorities, officials said.

Caudill said the flames caused minimal harm, but damage suffered from heavy smoke filling the 331-seat auditorium and water from fire hoses could total $50,000.

"The room was full of smoke. It was thick," Caudill said, adding that clearing the smoke out of the expansive building took several hours. "There's a lot of doorways, hallways and small areas it can get trapped in."

Caudill said no one was injured in the fire.

Winthrop will have to replace the theater's lighting system and curtains, according to a university news release. Repairs to the stage could take several weeks.

Classes canceled

The fire prompted Winthrop officials to close the building Friday and cancel all classes normally held there. The building will likely reopen by Monday.

"We're waiting to get a list of all the damage," said Winthrop spokeswoman Judy Longshaw.

The play "Dead Men Walking" is scheduled to open in Johnson Theatre on Tuesday, but Friday afternoon Longshaw said it's still unclear if the event will have to be moved to another campus location.

Johnson Hall, located on Alumni Drive next to Roddey Apartments, was built in 1920 and named for the first Winthrop president, David Bancroft Johnson. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Johnson received a $6.5 million renovation in 1993. The building houses classes, offices, computer labs, Johnson Theatre, dance studios, a television studio and the campus radio station, WINR.

Dozens of faculty members and students waited in the rain Friday morning after being evacuated from the building. Several students arriving for 9 a.m. classes took pictures of the fire trucks and returned to their cars or dorm rooms.

Professors stood in the parking lot hoping their offices and expensive equipment were spared.

Janet Gray, an assistant theater professor and costume designer, said the department's sets and costumes were not stored on the stage and should be safe.

"I'm just worried about the stage and the curtains," she said.

"It's like burnt popcorn," assistant theater professor Daryl Phillipy said about the smoke's odor. "You just can't get rid of it."

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