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The senior prom was almost over, and the 200 students from Springfield Gardens High School were waiting for the balloons to drop from the ceiling of the New York Hall of Science, in Queens County, signaling an end to a night of dancing and animated conversation. But what fell instead from the building's 70-foot-high ceiling early Thursday morning was a 10-pound steel pipe. After it struck 17-year-old Micha Chatmon on the head, she collapsed to the floor.

Two hours later, the popular high school senior who wanted to be a nurse was pronounced dead at Elmhurst Hospital Center. She never regained consciousness, according to Sgt. Edelle James, a police spokesman.Officials of the science museum in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, who frequently rent out the Great Hall for proms and parties, were as stunned as Chatmon's fellow students and struggled on Thursday to find an explanation for the falling pipe.

"We can't figure out where it came from or how it fell," said Dr. Alan Friedman, the director of the city-owned museum, which was built for the 1964 World's Fair. "Just to have a piece of metal fall out of the sky like that - it's a terrible tragedy."

Students who saw the accident said that just before it occurred, they saw someone climb onto a metal catwalk just below the ceiling to release a large bag of balloons that would mark the evening's climax.

Friedman said that a member of his staff and one of the prom's organizers were on the catwalk, but he said neither recalled bumping or kicking any pipes. The catwalk has a metal lip to prevent objects from rolling off, he said, and there are no plumbing fixtures there that match the object that fell, a galvanized-steel pipe coupling about six inches in diameter and six inches long.

The police and city buildings officials sealed the room Thursday to investigate, and officials of the Buildings Department said engineers determined that there was nothing structurally wrong with the museum. Police said there was no evidence that the pipe had been thrown or dropped intentionally.

Many seniors at the high school did not attend classes on Thursday, instead milling around outside the school to comfort one another. Several students in clusters were weeping.

"Everybody liked her," said Lushan James, a junior. "She always made you laugh and want to be with her."

Anthony Benson, a senior and a close friend of Chatmon, said he was standing a few feet from her when the accident occurred about 12:30 a.m. While a disk jockey played songs, Chatmon and most of the other students were dancing and waiting for the balloons to drop, Benson said. Suddenly he heard a popping sound and turned to see Chatmon lying on the floor, blood pouring from her head.

"I said, `Micha, please get up. Please get up.' But she didn't," he said.