Monday, May 21, 2018
Education

Fire cancels classes, does over $1M damage at St. Petersburg High School

ST. PETERSBURG — For drama students at St. Petersburg High, the school's auditorium is much more than a stage.

Seniors keep their lockers there. Students sit in circles on the stage and chat over lunch. They mingle there before and after class.

"It sounds really trite to say," said Whitney Essman, a senior and a member of the Thespian group, "but it's like a home for us."

That home sustained significant damage early Friday when a fire tore through part of the roof and tech booth, causing more than $1 million in water and smoke damage.

About midnight Friday, firefighters received a call about flames showing from the school's roof. They arrived and found a group of workers with a blow torch. About 3:30 a.m., the workers left.

Thirty minutes later, the fire alarm went off. When fire crews arrived, flames were shooting through the roof of the school's historic three-story auditorium. They called for reinforcements and cut off power to the school, said St. Petersburg Fire Rescue spokesman Lt. Joel Granata.

Two hours later, the blaze was extinguished.

But the damage was done.

The tech booth that controls the sound and lighting system was destroyed. Water and smoke damage covered the auditorium. A gaping hole opened in the ceiling. Classes on Friday were canceled for more than 2,300 students.

"I was just, like, stunned," Essman, 17, said. "When a school catches fire you think of, like, the science lab. I didn't think it would be in, like, this place that is so important to me. Then I just started fearing the worst."

The cause of the fire is under investigation, but Granata said investigators think the roofing work contributed to the start of the blaze.

Fort Lauderdale-based Taylor Contracting and Roofing Inc. was hired by Pinellas schools more than three weeks ago to install a roof replacement. After numerous requests for comment Friday, the company issued a statement saying it was "in full cooperation" with the school district to get to the source of what went wrong.

School district officials met Friday to discuss the damage, the repair plan and how to pay for it, said spokeswoman Melanie Marquez. It was too soon to know if the district or the company's insurance would cover the damage.

The district still needs reports from its risk management and fire departments, she said.

"I know there's going to be a lot of work going on," Marquez said.

School principal Al Bennett received calls and emails Friday from students, teachers and alumni.

St. Petersburg High opened in 1898 and had its first graduating class in 1901, according to its website. Its current building at 2501 Fifth Ave. N was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.

"They all want to help," he said. "I know we can fix it. It's just disruptive."

Bennett said the auditorium may reopen by November, when the Thespians have planned to hold their first play of the year, The Curious Savage. Most of the repairs, including replacing the carpet and cleaning up debris, should be completed by then.

"The show should go on," said Trish Grunz, drama director. "I was happy not everything was affected."

Among the items spared by the fire: props, costumes and the stage.

But until November, the Thespians will need another place to rehearse. The group has a theater conference in October.

About 20 of the 60 or so Thespians met at Crescent Lake Park after the fire. They sang songs from old shows and "bonded for a while," said Luisa Laitano, 17, the group's president.

Classes were expected to resume Tuesday. About 20 maintenance workers will begin the auditorium cleanup and temporarily fix the roof to prevent any leaks this weekend, Marquez said.

"These things do happen," said principal Bennett. "And we just have to persevere and move forward."

Staff writer Marissa Lang and Times researchers Carolyn Edds and Natalie A. Watson contributed to this report. Laura C. Morel can be reached at (727) 893-8713 or [email protected]

     
 
Comments
Eckerd College hosts a royal celebration of its own

Eckerd College hosts a royal celebration of its own

A day after England’s royal wedding between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, St. Petersburg hosted a royal celebration of its own. Among the estimated 500 graduates to receive an Eckerd College diploma at Sunday’s graduation ceremony held...
Updated: 1 hour ago
At vigil, another school mourns: ‘It is hope in the face of tragedy that brings us together today.’

At vigil, another school mourns: ‘It is hope in the face of tragedy that brings us together today.’

SANTA FE, Texas - They gathered here by the dozens Friday evening, wearing their school colors, T-shirts that said "Texas Tough," while huddling under the shade of a gaggle of pine trees, not 11 hours after the first shots were fired.They came to pra...
Published: 05/19/18
‘I always felt it would eventually happen here’: A Santa Fe High School survivor’s reaction to the shooting

‘I always felt it would eventually happen here’: A Santa Fe High School survivor’s reaction to the shooting

Paige Curry tried to keep calm Friday morning as a gunman tore through her Santa Fe High School, eventually killing 10 people and injuring another 10. The 17-year-old watched as a girl nearby panicked. Curry, herself terrified, considered running out...
Published: 05/19/18
Class of 2018: Meet the valedictorians and salutatorians for Pinellas private high schools

Class of 2018: Meet the valedictorians and salutatorians for Pinellas private high schools

Before they could get away, we asked the top graduates at Pinellas County’s private schools to write a Twitter-length paragraph about what’s on their mind. We suggested they reflect on the past or the future, or talk about the people who helped them ...
Published: 05/18/18
Class of 2018: TBT’s Anita Morgan rises above abuse to thrive

Class of 2018: TBT’s Anita Morgan rises above abuse to thrive

TAMPA — For those who fear there is no hope, or help, or heart left in this world, there is the story of Anita Morgan.There are any number of life-wrenching places to begin …In the middle of the night, in the back of a police car, cruising over the b...
Published: 05/18/18
Class of 2018: TBT’s Anita Morgan rises above abuse to thrive

Class of 2018: TBT’s Anita Morgan rises above abuse to thrive

TAMPA — For those who fear there is no hope, or help, or heart left in this world, there is the story of Anita Morgan.There are any number of life-wrenching places to begin …In the middle of the night, in the back of a police car, cruising over the b...
Published: 05/17/18
Updated: 05/18/18
Florida teacher accused of drowning raccoons in class placed on leave

Florida teacher accused of drowning raccoons in class placed on leave

A Florida teacher was placed on administrative leave after school officials were told that he had students help him drown wild raccoons during class.A 14-second video published by CBS affiliate WKMG showed a group of students filling a tub of water u...
Published: 05/17/18
The US spends less on children than almost any other developed nation

The US spends less on children than almost any other developed nation

The federal government now spends less than it did about 30 years ago on some of the country’s poorest children, the result of cuts to federal welfare programs, according to a new research paper.In 1990, the government spent about $8,700 on every chi...
Published: 05/17/18
Two gifts on graduation day: white Crocs, and a lesson that ‘it can’t hurt to ask’

Two gifts on graduation day: white Crocs, and a lesson that ‘it can’t hurt to ask’

ST. PETERSBURG — Sarah Agee and her friends never pictured themselves wearing Crocs to their graduation. But the foam shoes were comfortable, offered better footing than heels, and now the Seminole High seniors had a story to tell.It all started a li...
Published: 05/16/18
Updated: 05/17/18
Romano: Instead of securing schools, lawmakers saved themselves

Romano: Instead of securing schools, lawmakers saved themselves

I said it two months ago, and it’s only become more obvious since then:The bipartisan school safety proposal passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor had more to do with protecting the rear ends of politicians than the lives of students.I...
Published: 05/16/18