Auditorium fire shows student and teacher preparedness

By Jordan Janis, Fact Checker

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After seven days of cleaning, the CHS auditorium has new curtains and newly cleaned, upholstered seats and carpeting following an electrical fire that broke out in the auditorium March 21.

Damage was contained to the auditorium area because emergency doors closed to prevent the spread of the fire.  The fire department’s fire hoses did not cause water damage and the floor remained intact, but the curtain that caught on fire had to be replaced.  The school’s insurance policy will cover the damage which was estimated to be about $5,000, according to Principal Joan Benz.

“We were very lucky because it was a minor, contained accident,” said Scott Selman, who is the media services technician and technical director for productions and events in the auditorium.

The fire interrupted the end of lunch, and students missed their fifth period classes.  Because students were unable to access the auditorium area, classes nearby were relocated for sixth and seventh periods that day and for all periods the next day.  The fire did not affect any after-school activities, but an MTS Academy lecture located near the auditoriuam two days later was rescheduled to April 17.

According to assistant principal Edward Reed, the fire evacuation procedure was different than usual fire drills because it occurred at lunch, but students and staff followed normal evacuation procedures to exit the building.

“Students followed the directions of the staff, and staff managed and directed students while the emergency was addressed,” Reed said.

The incident was caused by a stage curtain that caught fire from a faulty extension cord.

At the end of lunch, freshmen Max Wolpoff, Darian Safiran, Ezra Kurlansky, Emilio Slaughter and Gill Jacobson, who were eating lunch near the auditorium, smelled smoke and saw the flames in the auditorium, then warned nearby students of the fire.

Senior Nik Ramirez and junior Duncan Seguin, who were also eating lunch near the auditorium, got a fire extinguisher from backstage and put out most of the flames until the smoke was too much for them to withstand.

“I couldn’t see anything but smoke, and I could see a little bit of the floor,” Ramirez said.  “We weren’t really thinking other than to put out the fire.  At that point the flames were about 5 feet high or so.”

Meanwhile, Safiran alerted assistant school administrator John Taylor, who notified the front office to pull the fire alarm.  Students and staff immediately evacuated the building with no injuries.  Administration checked the building to ensure that everyone had evacuated, and fire and rescue services and MCPS security and safety personnel promptly arrived.

“The students, the staff and everybody worked in tandem,” said assistant principal Doreen Brandes, who was the designee in charge in the absence of Principal Benz, who was out of the building.  “Everybody just innately knew what to do.  Nobody panicked, everybody was patient, and everyone followed directions as needed.”

Although the fire was quickly extinguished, students were outside for about an hour because the area needed to be closed off as a result of excess smoke.  Health inspectors checked the air quality to ensure there was no carbon monoxide or smell in the air.

The upcoming CHS musical, Legally Blonde, was not majorly affected and opened April 20.  According to Selman, rehearsals were not impacted because the cast practices in another room, but the tech crew had to change the set designs to fit a time frame of two weeks instead of the planned four weeks because they were not allowed in the auditorium until spring break started.

“We’re very good at working within small time frames,” said Ramirez, who is the student set designer for Legally Blonde.  “Everything is going to be scaled down.  We’re going to keep the most important pieces to make it look like a Churchill show.”

According to Benz, frequent fire drills throughout the year prepared students to leave the building quickly, and they knew what to do in an emergency.

Although they are open to suggestion, as of right now administration is not planning to change the fire evacuation plan.

“We’re fortunate enough to have great students and staff who follow emergency procedures,” Reed said.