$15 Million Sight and Sound Theater Fire and Building Collapse

Technical BulletinLast updated Friday, January 31, 1997
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On the morning of January 28, 1997, in the Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, township of Strasburg, a fire caused the collapse of the state-of-the-art, seven-year-old Sight and Sound Theater and resulted in structural damage to most of the connecting buildings. The theater was a total loss, valued at over $15 million.

The stage area was undergoing renovation and the theater was closed to the public, however, approximately 200 people, construction staff, and employees were in the building at the time the fire started. Although the theater was built to conform to a two hour fire rated assembly code requirement, many other fire protection features that could have assisted in saving the structure and reducing the damage were not present. Further contributing to the resultant loss was the failure of the alarm system to notify the fire dispatch communications center and the lack of an adequate, readily available water supply. The volunteer fire departments that responded were faced with difficult fire conditions and tactical challenges for which they had not been adequately trained, and were without the benefit of adequate pre-planning. Local fire service suggestions for built-in fire suppression and smoke ventilation systems during the pre-construction plan review phase were ignored.

While the incident was influenced by many conditions and situations which contributed to the large fire loss, fortunately there was no loss of life and only six minor injuries to the construction company staff. If the 1,400 seat capacity auditorium had been full, the situation could have been catastrophic.

The lessons learned as a result of this fire and collapse are similar to observations from comparable incidents in recent history. The Wolftrap Farm Theater and Pavilion fire in Fairfax County, Virginia, in 1988 suffered a total loss in the stage, props, dressing rooms, and storage area. The pre-construction recommendation for a fire sprinkler system had not been heeded. When the facility was rebuilt, it was totally sprinkled.

The McCormick Place exhibition hall fire in Chicago, Illinois, in 1967 was a public assembly occupancy built with fire protected steel construction and no sprinkler system. "Fortunately the fire started in the early morning hours; the possibility of life loss would have been staggering had the fire occurred during the day." This fast-burning, high-rate-of-heat-production fire caused complete collapse of the building. The fire was discovered early but the alarm was delayed while maintenance personnel tried to control the fire. The new (rebuilt) McCormick place has a hydraulically calculated sprinkler system, smoke venting system, in addition to one hour rated fire resistance protection on structural steel. The lessons learned here are not new. These examples are similar in situation and outcome to the Sight and Sound theater fire.

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