August fire at St. Pete High bars theater students from 'second home'

Something is amiss at St. Petersburg High.

Drama students are rehearsing in a classroom, the annual lip-synching contest has been postponed until next year, and meetings for seniors have been moved to the gym.

St. Petersburg High has not been the same, school officials said, since a fire ripped through the auditorium early in the semester.

The Aug. 31 blaze sparked moments after workers repairing the roof left the school. A fire alarm went off about 4 a.m. Firefighters arrived and found flames shooting through the roof of the school's historic three-story auditorium.

While the auditorium undergoes repairs, students and staffers have been forced to reschedule events and move meetings.

"It's been an inconvenience in a lot of ways," said principal Al Bennett.

Among the students most affected by the auditorium's closing are the thespians.

"It's definitely our second home," said thespian group president Luisa Laitano, 17.

Before the blaze, the group was going to perform The Curious Savage, which requires an elaborate set, in November.

Instead, the troupe will now perform Almost, Maine, a play with a simpler set, at Boca Ciega High. Students there are creating the stagecraft for the play.

The auditorium served as their rehearsal space. But now, students are rehearsing in the school's smaller theater or drama director Trish Grunz's classroom.

"All we can do," Grunz said, "is control what we can and just do the best we can do."

In addition to the play, the students are rehearsing for their performance at this week's Florida Theatre Conference in Gainesville.

Laitano said rehearsing outside the auditorium presents challenges.

Work spaces are much smaller and rehearsals now revolve around other clubs' schedules.

"We're looking to plan a party when we get our auditorium back," Laitano said. "It feels so wrong to be in school and to be rehearsing and to not have our space."

Fire investigators ruled that roofers making repairs with a blowtorch caused the blaze.

The Pinellas County School District hired Fort Lauderdale-based Taylor Contracting and Roofing for a roof replacement.

About three weeks into the job, the fire erupted.

"It was the hot torching of the material which caused the wood underneath to slowly burn and eventually ignited," said St. Petersburg Fire Rescue spokesman Lt. Joel Granata.

Taylor Contracting and Roofing did not return calls or emails seeking comment.

The estimated cost for repairs is $500,000, said schools spokeswoman Melanie Marquez.

The tech booth that controlled the sound and lighting system was destroyed, and water and smoke damage covered the auditorium.

Repairs began in September. Workers removed and cleaned the stage curtains, replaced bits of plaster and repainted the walls.

But a lot of work remains.

New equipment and lighting will be installed in the tech booth, parts of the balcony need to be replaced, and minor repairs to the roof must be completed.

The auditorium may reopen in January, Bennett said.

"It could have been worse," he said. "And we're making do."

Laura C. Morel can be reached at (727)893-8713, or lmorel@tampabay.com.

Almost, Maine

St. Petersburg High students will perform Almost, Maine at 7 p.m. Nov. 15 and 16 at Boca Ciega High, 924 58th St. S, Gulfport. Tickets are $5 for students, $10 for adults and $7 for senior citizens.

August fire at St. Pete High bars theater students from 'second home' 10/23/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 23, 2012 5:03pm]

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