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Quick thinking by the curator at the Prairie Art Gallery in northwestern Alberta may have averted disaster Monday when a historic building that houses the museum partially collapsed.

Normally, the gallery would be filled with visitors, staff and a pre-school class filled with 20 children. But early in the morning, curator Robert Steven noticed one of the central roof beams had cracked and water was trickling into the south end of the building.

He immediately called off the pre-school class, evacuated the site, guarded the door to ensure no one entered and then called the city to investigate.

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It was moments after city workers left the building after checking out what was going on that a third of the roof sagged and smashed to the floor.

"They had left to take another look at it from a different point of view and, boom, it came down," said deputy Fire Chief Harvey Pearson.

He said it's lucky no one was injured, but there was substantial damage to the building walls and ceiling.

"It was structural damage. We knew something severe was going to happen."

Nearby buildings were evacuated in the event of further collapse, gas and power was cut to the site and firefighters swarmed the scene to ensure no one was trapped inside.

Fire prevention officer Mark Whelpton said there were no warnings of the impending collapse. City crews have cleared snow off the flat roof several times this season.

"On Friday there was only about six inches of snow on the roof," he said. "If it was previous snow loads that weakened the structure or whether it was some other cause, we can't confirm that at this time."

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A groundbreaking for a new multimillion-dollar library and expanded gallery was scheduled for this spring. Plans were in place to attach the expansion directly to the gallery - right where the collapse occurred. Those plans are now in doubt.

The art gallery is home to over 600 works of art and has not suffered any losses or damage to the collection in the last 10 years.

The building housed the first high school in Grande Prairie and was designated a historic site in 1984.

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