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Station Nightclub Fire
“Where’s my husband? Where’s my husband?” someone screams as a cameraman stalks nearby and hundreds of people flee. The fire at the Station Nightclub on February 20, 2003 killed 100 people and injured 200 people. The loss of life is tragic, but with this tragedy came stricter fire codes for places of assembly, keeping event-goers safe. Since the 2003 fire code change, there has not been a large -scale tragic fire in a place of assembly in the United States.
The Station Nightclub was a popular heavy metal nightclub in West Warwick, RI built in 1946 and grandfathered out of the 1976 fire sprinkler law. The band Great White was set to perform at 11pm on February 20, 2003 and the fans came in droves to see them. The 4,484 square foot, mostly wood interior, club was set at a 420 person capacity. There are claims that the building was over capacity for the show, but no one was keeping track of the patrons that night. They were too excited to hear “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” and “Dessert Moon.”
Slightly behind schedule at 11:06pm, Great White entered the stage. With a surge of “gerbs” or sprays of sparks, they began their first song. By 11:07pm, the flammable sound proofing material ignited from the gerbs. The crowd heard three words from lead singer Jack Russell before the chaos began, “This ain’t good.”
The gerbs ignited the egg crate sound proofing materials in seconds and the stage immediately went up in flames. The band exited and the audience stood in the pit, confused. They thought it was part of the show.
Soon, black smoke began billowing through the audience and they ran to the front entrance. There were four other exits; however, sociological phenomenon shows that in times of panic, when people need to leave a place quickly, they instinctively go for the door they entered. With this mentality, 2/3 of the crowd surged forward.
Within 90 seconds, the crowd experienced a “crowd crush,” an incident in which people push through a single door and ultimately block entry and exit. It should also be noted that a test showed that in the Station Nightclub environment, at the 90 second mark, the air condition and heat would have been to the point to cause death. The concert-goers felt the panic of impending death and rushed to the exit.
Ninety-six people burned to death in the nightclub that evening, four others died the following day. Two hundred people were injured. A triage center was set up at a restaurant across the street. All of the two hundred people were treated there and then sent to one of fifteen nearby medical centers.
Three weeks after the Station Nightclub fire, the NFPA Technical Committee on Assembly members, Station survivors, victim’s families, and members of the fire safety community gathered to discuss the event.
Participants proposed NFPA issue an emergency code amendment called a Tentative Interim Amendment (TIA). On July 25, 2013, the standard council issued the recommended TIAs; they went into effect August 14, 2003:
1. Fire sprinklers must be installed in new nightclubs and similar assembly occupancies and in EXISTING facilities that accommodate more than 100 people.
2. Building owners are responsible for inspecting means of egress and ensuring there are no blockages or obstructions.
3. One trained crowd manager must be present at all gatherings with 100 or more people, except religious service. Larger gatherings require a ratio of 1:250.
4. Festival seating (no seating available except the ground) is prohibited for crowds over 250 unless a life safety evaluation approved by the authority having jurisdiction has been performed.
This fire was the fourth deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history. Who was to blame for the large loss of life? The band’s manager never requested a permit for the pyrotechnics that ignited the blaze. He was tried and sentenced to four years in jail for involuntary manslaughter, but he served less than half of his time. The owners had no knowledge of the pyrotechnics; however, they installed flammable sound proofing. Michael Derderian, co-owner of Station Nightclub, was charged with 200 counts of involuntary manslaughter. He pleaded no contest and was sentenced to four years in jail. Brother and co-owner, Jeffrey Derderian was sentenced to probation and 500 hours of community service.
As an example of what could have happened if proper training and protection were established at Station Nightclub, in February, 2003 at the Fine Line Music Café, a fire broke out due to a band’s pyrotechnics. No injuries or deaths occurred. The staff was trained on proper evacuation techniques and fire sprinklers contained the fire to the point of origin.
Special Note: The E2 Nightclub incident happened weeks before the Station Nightclub fire. Due to this incident, a cameraman was at Station Nightclub the night of the fire, filming a story on club safety.
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