A maze of scaffolding now covers the floor of Judson Erne Auditorium at Columbus North High School, where there used to be hundreds of comfortable seats for theater and music fans.

Work is continuing in earnest to clean up from a Dec. 5 fire that severely damaged about 70 seats and caused extensive smoke and soot damage throughout the entire structure, school officials said.

The seats that weren’t damaged were removed from the auditorium and placed in storage while the cleanup work continues.

John Green, North assistant principal, said the scaffolding that now fills the auditorium allows workers to climb up to the decking and supported ceiling to clear away the smoke damage.

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Columbus firefighters said the fire happened when an overhead light blew and ignited plastic on the fixture. The light malfunction caught the seats below on fire in the auditorium, firefighters said.

The fire happened just at the start of school and filled the auditorium and nearby hallways with smoke. School officials went into the auditorium with fire extinguishers and put out the fire before firefighters arrived as students were evacuated. No one was injured and students returned to class a short time later, although the auditorium and surrounding hallways were off limits.

During the cleanup, school officials are dealing with other losses from the fire. About 2,000 costumes were discarded rather than being cleaned because it would be cheaper to replace them, said John Johnson, auditorium manager and North’s drama coach.

In addition, several stock stage props were also damaged by smoke. While some were able to be salvaged, others were thrown out.

Smoke damage was extensive

The school corporation has hired Servpro, a company that specializes in water and fire damage cleanup and restoration, to clean the auditorium, school officials said.

Wearing hazardous material suits, Servpro workers have placed filtration units and fans in the auditorium and surrounding hallways as part of cleanup efforts.

Johnson said the smoke damage to the auditorium was far more extensive than he had originally estimated.

Among at least 70 of the auditorium seats that were completely destroyed, 40 had melted and 30 were damaged beyond repair by smoke, Johnson said.

The school plans to replace all of the North auditorium seats with new ones sometime in the summer, he said. The replacement isn’t being done now as it takes 12 weeks to order and receive new seats, Johnson said.

He did not have an estimated cost on how much the cost of new seats would be, but said he hoped the district’s insurance would cover that expense as well.

Everything inside the auditorium, which seats 1,100 people, is being cleaned, including the stage curtains and other items, Green said.

He hopes that Servpro can complete the work by mid-February, but said the process may take a little bit longer.

“The goal is to make sure once this process is done, it’s completely back to normal,” he said. “Basically every surface inside the auditorium has to be cleaned.”

The auditorium lights are also being replaced with LED lighting, with 100 lights currently being cleaned off-site, Green said.

Finding new locations

School activities and other planned events were moved to alternative locations after the fire last month. The auditorium hosts about 200 events each year.

The Columbus Indiana Philharmonic has a Feb. 4 performance currently booked at the auditorium, while a Chinese New Year’s celebration is scheduled a week later.

Margaret Powers, Columbus Indiana Philharmonic executive director, said she is looking at possible alternative locations for the group’s performance, but declined to say where those would be.

If the Philharmonic is forced to move its Feb. 4 show to a different venue, it would be the second time in a month. The fire caused the Philharmonic to move its December concert to Columbus East High School on short notice.

It also remains unclear whether North’s performing arts department will be able to present its upcoming musical, “Kiss Me Kate,” scheduled for March 3 to 5, in the auditorium, Johnson said.

The work inside the auditorium means about 150 students will have to practice for the musical in a large group room or possibly the band room, he said.

That will be challenging since every aspect of the musical is based on it being performed on the auditorium’s stage, Johnson said.

“We have a lot of investment in the performance,” he said. “We have to accommodate rehearsals in a different format.”

Johnson said he’s unsure what will happen if the musical can’t be performed in the North auditorium, but remains confident work will be completed in time for the March show.

What's next

Columbus North assistant principal John Green said the school hopes to have cleanup efforts in the high school auditorium completed by mid-February.

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Matt Kent is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at 812-379-5712 or mkent@therepublic.com