Club Fire Tragedy
Fire Commission Hears Testimony That "The Station" Nightclub Had Poorly Designed Exits and Low Ceilings
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) _ The nightclub where a fast-moving fire claimed 100 lives had poorly designed exits and a ceiling that was too low for safe use of fireworks, according to experts who
testified before a state commission investigating the inferno.
The four exits at The Station, in West Warwick, were not accessible to many in the crowd the night of the Feb. 20 disaster, said Paul Wertheimer, a Chicago-based consultant on crowd
``The exits look good on paper, but in reality they weren't good,'' he said Thursday. ``It came down to, most people thought they only had one avenue of escape. Most came out the way they came in.''
Wertheimer said only two of the exits appear designed to be used by patrons. Of those, only the front entrance would have been clearly visible to most patrons, he said.
The front entrance appeared to have been designed to assist management in processing tickets and doing security checks of patrons on their way in, Wertheimer said.
``That makes sense, but the trouble is it acts like a funnel, it was an easy, orderly way to get in, but difficult to get out,'' he said.
The consultant recommended the state adopt national fire safety standards and require nightclubs to employ people trained in crowd management.
Two licensed pyrotechnicians testified the ceiling in the West Warwick club was too low for fireworks to be safely set off. The former club's stage manager has said pyrotechnics were used
regularly at The Station before the deadly fire.
Investigators believe the band Great White's pyrotechnics sparked the blaze, which also injured nearly 200.
``No legitimate company would have gone past the (club's) front door,'' said Glenn Thigpen, of New Hampshire-based Atlas PyroVision Productions, Inc., which is licensed in Rhode Island.
The state commission is beginning to weigh potentially significant changes to fire safety codes, as a June deadline to report recommendations to state lawmakers looms.
The 17-member panel has heard repeated testimony that the state's fire safety code is difficult to understand when matched with building code requirements.
``What we've heard is (the codes) were a mess,'' said panel co-Chairman John Celona, D-North Providence. ``It's important for us to put in one streamlined code.''
Celona's co-chairman, Rep. Peter Ginaitt, D-Warwick, said after last week's hearing that reconciling differences between the codes may be the panel's biggest challenge. He questioned, however, whether the panel will have enough time to make the necessary changes.
The commission has also heard extensive testimony on whether the state should continue to allow older buildings to be exempt from sprinkler requirements that apply to new construction. This is
perhaps the most controversial issue before the commission.
Fire safety experts support eliminating the exemption, but some businesses have complained they won't be able to afford to install sprinklers. Others have testified that the state should consider
eliminating the exemption only for certain types of businesses, such as nightclubs like The Station.
The West Warwick club was in a building constructed in the 1940s and had no sprinklers.
At Thursday's hearing, associations representing Rhode Island fire marshals and fire chiefs became the latest groups to call for eliminating the exemption many older buildings have from sprinkler requirements. The groups also support one code for building and fire safety regulations.
They also called for sprinklers in new homes, which currently is not required, and say pyrotechnics should only be allowed in venues licensed for more than 1,000 people.
The marshals also said they could better enforce fire safety regulations if they were allowed to issue fines at the scene to businesses that don't meet requirements.
Lt. Gov. Charles Fogarty said the commission, which he serves on, must improve enforcement of state codes, which inspectors say is hindered by limited manpower.
``The state has the responsibility (for enforcement) but it is delegating it locally. That's a problem,'' Fogarty said. ``We can have the best codes in the world but if people aren't enforcing
them on a regular basis, the public is at risk.''