The Station Nightclub Fire—Ten Years After

mgid_uma_content_mtvThe Station nightclub is now just a barren parking lot on a stretch of suburban road.  The site betrays little of the horror of that cold Thursday night 10 years ago, when, in just six minutes, flames exploded into an inferno of poisonous gas and unimaginable heat. One hundred people died.

In the evening of February 20, 2003, more than 350 people had come to The Station in West Warwick, Rhode Island to see the rock band Great White perform.

Mere seconds before the blaze.
Mere seconds before the blaze.

Shortly after 11 o’clock, the band’s tour manager lit a pyrotechnic display, which ignited flammable packing foam that had been installed in the club as soundproofing near the back of the stage. The fire engulfed the building in just six minutes, sending a crush of people to the front entrance. Many of the 100 died from smoke inhalation, while more than 200 others were injured — trampled and burned.

The Station fire at 40 seconds.
The Station fire at 40 seconds.

Within three years of The Station fire, there were three additional nightclub fires around the world sparked by pyrotechnics.  You would think this wouldn’t happen, but there were clubs in Buenos Aires, Argentina killing 194 people, a year later, in Bangkok, Thailand on New Year’s Eve in 2008 in which 66 were killed and in Perm, Russia in December 2009 killing 152 people.  The fatalities in all of those cases resulted from the use of pyrotechnics inside a rock club.

The lessons of the Station tragedy had yet to be learned.

Then, a nightclub in Brazil that killed 235 people, mainly students, under eerily similar circumstances occurred on January 27th of this year. A band’s pyrotechnic display set fire to soundproofing foam there as well.

Concert goers pushed and shoved in a frantic attempt to get out of the Brazil nightclub, similar to the heart-wrenching stories still being told by survivors of the 2003 fire.

For survivors of the Station nightclub fire, one of the deadliest in U.S. history, the fire in Brazil that killed hundreds was the latest in a series of reminders that no matter how far away, those who ignore the lessons of their tragedy can pay a horrible cost.

Last September, the owner of the former site of the Station donated the land for a permanent memorial to the 100 people killed in the fire.  The project has been delayed because the owner of the land didn’t want to give it up until all legal issues were settled.

Music will play forever at the site of The Station nightclub tragedy after The Station Fire Memorial Foundation announced plans for a new memorial park to be built on the land during its 10th anniversary ceremony Sunday afternoon.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

The plans call for a 30-foot-high entrance gate topped by an Aeolian harp. Wind passing through the harp will create music, a reminder that it was music that brought people together that night.

The permanent memorial will feature 12 round gardens, each bordered in granite with an individual memorial marker bearing the name of each of the 100 people lost in the fire will be placed along a walkway paved by bricks that can be purchased to support the construction costs of the park.

The memorial will also commemorate the survivors, first responders and those who helped care for families of the dead and survivors in the weeks and months after the fire. It will include a pavilion as a gathering place.

While many of the materials and labor to build the memorial will be donated, foundation officials say they need to raise $1 million to $2 million to build and maintain it.

Gina Russo
Gina Russo

Gina Russo, who was badly burned in the fire and whose fiancé was killed, is president of the Station Fire Memorial Fund and said the memorial would turn the site into something beautiful.

The Station Fire Memorial Foundation is a 501(c)(3) recognized charitable organization that was formed in order to procure, construct, and maintain a fitting memorial to those affected by our state’s most significant tragedy to date.

The Station Fire Memorial Foundation is a 100% Volunteer Effort. There are no administrative costs. Every dollar raised by the Station Fire Memorial Foundation will go directly to address the costs of construction and maintenance of the memorial. Construction is estimated to begin in the Spring of 2013 could take one to two years.  More details may be found at StationFireMemorialFoundation.org.

Ironically, the first practical sprinkler head was developed up the road in Providence, Rhode Island in 1881. There was no sprinkler system at the Station.

Why?  A legal phenomenon called “grandfathering,” whereby older buildings that were built before the code required sprinklers don’t have to become sprinklered unless they undergo a “change of use or occupancy.”

StationNightClubSomehow, during the evolution of this club — from humble restaurant to a concert venue with over 400 people in it — was never considered a sufficient change of use or occupancy to require sprinklering.

The night of the Station fire, there were multiple things happened that contributed to the catastrophe of that night in addition to the lack of a sprinkler system.  It was a perfect storm of: illegal use of inappropriate pyrotechnics indoors, flammable wall coverings, overcrowding, and poorly or completely untrained staff.

Since the Station fire, Rhode Island has introduced laws to avoid a similar tragedy.  Sprinklers are now required in nightclubs and bars with occupancy limits of 100 or more, they have tightened the fire code to make it less easy to grandfather old buildings, nightclub workers must be trained in fire safety and more money was set aside for fire safety classes in schools.

Rhode Island also banned pyrotechnics in all but its largest public venues and local fire marshals were enabled to order immediate repairs and write tickets for violations.

Ten years later, you can see that some changes have been made, but have there been enough?  Have the lessons been learned?

No one takes safety seriously enough.  “It can’t happen here,” they think.

Unfortunately, greed is not going to go away, but there are interventions that can be made. The sprinklers are something the state and the towns have to get involved to make sure people are safe.

In Rhode Island, they have changed the codes.

Codes aren’t the problem–code enforcement is the problem.

One of the things about regulating places is, if you’re overcrowded, you might get a little fine.  At the Station, it all came down to greed…buying the cheap foam…overselling the club…Everything the owners did, money overruled safety.

If the fines approximated or exceeded the extra money owners make by overcrowding their venues, maybe you’d see a difference in behavior, otherwise history will likely continue to repeat itself.

If you run a business—particularly one that invites people in—you owe a duty, indeed, you have an obligation, to not make every decision in favor of profit over safety.

Very early on, after The Station fire, local bands would say, “Before we start, pay attention to your exits.” But that didn’t last.  Those things never do on their own.

You need to take the responsibility to learn the lessons of history on your own.  You can’t count on government officials to have been thorough enough in code enforcement.  You can’t count on the business owners to have made all of the decisions to guarantee your safety from anything that could happen. You can’t avoid going to public places out of fear that something could happen.

exit_signYou can, however, be aware of your surroundings.  You can make a habit of knowing where the exits are when you first enter a nightclub…or a theater…or a restaurant.  Just do it. Look around. Pay attention before something happens so you don’t need to panic if it does.  Then, enjoy.  Don’t let the music in life die.

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