Instrument lockers in the storage room off the East Ridge High band room. The fire took pl;ace Thursday night,Sept. 5, 2019. [submitted photo, City of Clermont Fire department]

by Linda Charlton

It’s midday in the media center at East Ridge High School, and band director Jack Hart is ready to greet his next class of students. If he had a band room, he would be in it. If his students had instruments, they could convene in the school’s auditorium and play — except that the theater department is just days away from their first show of the season and they need the auditorium. If his students had instruments, he might be able to enter a time-sharing agreement with the choir director — except that the choir routine has also been disrupted, and the choir is in prep for a major concert. If his students had instruments he might be able to hold class in the cafeteria — except that students have to eat there. The East Ridge middle school band director has offered space in that nearby school, but Hart knows that with the time needed to travel between campuses, he’d end up with maybe a half-period of rehearsal. Hart fully expects the situation to improve soon but right now, he and his students are treading water.

Thursday night 8:31 pm, the Clermont fire department responded to a call of a smoke alarm triggered at East Ridge High School. The school lies in unincorporated Lake County, but Clermont had the closest units. Clermont city communications director Kathryn Deen reports that the call was quickly elevated to “structure fire,” that four Clermont units were on scene, and that the firefighters stayed there for approximately four hours. The fire was in building 5, which houses the music department and the auditorium.  Smoke did permeate the auditorium and the band suite, but the fire itself was confined to the large room where students store their instruments — a combination of privately owned instruments and school-owned instruments checked out to specific students.

East Ridge band director Jack Hart on Monday, in the school’s media center. — his temporary classroom in the wake of a fire Thursday night. The trombone is one that had just been donated by a member of the community to help replace those instruments damaged or destroyed in the fire. [LINDA CHARLTON PHOTOS]
“Friday we were in awe, just figuring out where we’d be,” Hart said on Monday. “Today’s really our first day back.”

Insurance adjusters were working the scene on Monday, but as of midday, Hart had not yet been allowed back in his own bandroom. He does not yet know which instruments are damaged, which are destroyed. He does know that the instruments stored separately at the rehearsal hall storage area (including keyboards, amps, large percussion items, and surplus tubas) should be usable, barring any possible smoke or water damage. Uniforms were in a different room in the band suite and may or may not have smoke damage.

Hart does say he’s been reassured that the county and school district have every intention of getting the band “back up and running” as soon as possible.

“I’m more concerned about the instruments owned by students,” Hart says.

Students with their own high-end instruments typically take them home every day, because they practice every day. In this case, however, with All-State auditions scheduled for this weekend in Belleview and students allowed to practice for All-State during class, Hart fears that there may have been a number of really nice instruments in that storage room — not just the three that he knows about.

Hart is feeling pressure about his band’s lost rehearsal time. “If we don’t get instruments in hand — which I think will happen — and start practicing by the end of the week, or at the latest by the beginning of next week, we will have to start canceling appearances.”

In the meantime, Hart is getting offers of loaner instruments from music stores and from other band programs. He specifically has made arrangements for quality loaners for those students going to Belleview. He did have a trombone donated early Monday, and Family Jewelry Pawn, with stores in Minneola and Tavares, has stated their intention of donating instruments they have in stock, as well as serving as a drop-off point for equipment donations. Business owner Shawn McNiel says she has three clarinets, two flutes, a saxophone and a set of bongos, plus keyboards and amps. She figures if some of the instruments are ones that the band does not need, she will sell them and donate the money.

On a separate tack, the East Ridge band parents have started a GoFundMe page for the band recovery. The stated goal is $18,000. As of 5:15 pm, Monday, the total was up to $15,990.

There are 110 performing members of the East Ridge band.

The official cause of the fire, Deen says, is that “items in the storage facility were too close to operating equipment, according to Lake County.”
The county fire marshal report had not yet been released as of the end of day on Monday, however, the Clermont fire report was released. That report strongly suggests that the “operating equipment” was a refrigerator.

Linda Charlton is a freelance writer/musician/photographer based in south Lake County. Her favorite hobby is unraveling mysteries.