Students and staff react to planetarium fire

By Molly Burke

When the Ward Beecher Planetarium roof caught fire Jan. 9 around 12:30 p.m., the new semester changed for many students and staff going forward at Youngstown State University. 

For some, the fire at the planetarium meant a change of work scenery. Director at the Ward Beecher Planetarium, Patrick Durrell, was inside his office in Ward Beecher Hall when the fire started. He said the planetarium will most likely shut down for the foreseeable future. 

“We haven’t tried to attempt any of the systems, but certainly the dome itself was damaged,” Durell said. “It’s not like these are regular off-the-shelf parts. These are custom computers and projectors, special projectors and things like that. It’s not easy fixes.” 

As a professor of physics and astronomy, Durrell teaches many classes in the planetarium. The damage not only changed his teaching environment, but Durrell said the fire was difficult to see. 

“It just kills me,” Durell said. “We’ve done what we can over the years to make one of the best planetariums in the entire region, and it’s just heartbreaking to see.”

Whether it’s for recreational enjoyment or a place of learning, the Youngstown community has frequented the planetarium since its opening over 50 years ago. Curt Spivey, the planetarium’s engineer, said it brings crowds every year. 

“The planetarium does bring close to 15,000 people to campus every year for our public shows and school tours, so hopefully we’ll be able to rebuild and get right back to supporting Mahoning Valley,” Spivey said. 

According to several students, the fire created a stressful first day to the spring semester.

Kevin Otero, a sophomore mechanical engineering major, was in class across from the planetarium when the fire alarm went off. He said at first he thought it was a drill, so he left his belongings inside. 

“I did see a friend of mine come out of the planetarium coughing like crazy, and I knew it was a pretty serious situation. I got a little concerned because I left all my stuff in there and there’s potential for the building to burn down. But thankfully, I know one of my peers was with me on the way out and saw my friend come safely out of the planetarium,” Otero said. 

Junior physics and astronomy major, Amanda Keaton, said she was down the hall from the fire when it started.

“I worked in the planetarium last semester. So, when I saw that it was smoking and on fire, it was kind of nerve wracking because it was a big part of my life for a year,” Keaton said. “It would be nice to see that open up again and get some donations and money coming in for the planetarium because it is a really big part of our major.”

Alessandra Montanez, a junior business administration major, arrived at the scene when the fire broke out. She said she wished the fire hadn’t happened. 

“I’ve definitely gone to some classes [at the planetarium] with my friends because I love astronomy and the planetarium is honestly one of the greatest resources we have here on campus,” Montanez said. “I just hope and pray that everybody’s okay and it’s not too much damage.” 

Ward Beecher Hall reopened for students on Jan. 10, but it’s still uncertain what the future will be for the Ward Beecher Planetarium as it will remain closed until further notice. For more updates, head to the planetarium’s Facebook page.