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Gulliver's Discotheque Fire , New York

 

WEST WARWICK, R.I. — Over the decades, from the Cocoanut Grove to the Beverly Hills Supper Club to The Station, the formula for a nightclub disaster is always the same: too many people, too few exits and too little time to escape.

After 1942's Cocoanut Grove blaze was extinguished, 492 had died.

The two calamities last week that killed 118 people in clubs in Chicago and West Warwick, R.I., were the latest in a series of tragedies over a period of 60 years, each of which led to reforms that have made such disasters less likely.

Deadly club, dance hall fires

Some of the deadliest blazes at clubs and dance halls in the United States:

Location Fatalities Cause
Cocoanut Grove club, Boston; Nov. 28, 1942. 492 Unknown
Rhythm Night Club dance hall in Natchez, Miss.; April 23, 1940. 198 Unknown
Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Ky.; May 28, 1977. 165 Defective wiring
The Station nightclub, West Warwick, R.I.; Feb. 20, 2003. 97 Stage fireworks
Happy Land Social Club in the Bronx, New York; March 25, 1990. 87 Arson
Dance hall in West Plains, Mo. ; April 13, 1928 (explosion). 40 Unknown
Upstairs Bar in New Orleans; June 24, 1973. 32 Arson
Puerto Rican Social Club in the Bronx, New York; Oct. 24, 1976. 25 Arson
Gulliver's Discotheque in Port Chester, N.Y.; June 30, 1974. 24 Arson fire nearby spread to disco

Source: The Associated Press, USA TODAY research
But not impossible. Not if the improved safety rules aren't enforced or observed. Not if those who inspect, operate and patronize nightclubs act like characters in a Twilight Zone episode, doomed to endlessly learn a painful lesson, forget it and learn it again.

"This could happen anywhere in the United States," says Paul Wertheimer, a crowd safety consultant based in Chicago. "The problem is lax enforcement of existing safety laws (and) a recklessness of the industry."

The Chicago nightclub where 21 people died early Monday after the use of pepper spray to break up a fight touched off a stampede was open despite a court order. The Rhode Island fire, which killed 97 late Thursday, was ignited by the illegal use of fireworks during a rock show. The club had passed a safety inspection six weeks ago.

The fire in Rhode Island was the nation's deadliest in a quarter-century and the worst in the history of rock 'n' roll. It surpassed a 1999 stampede at a concert in Minsk, Belarus, that killed 53 people.

At the two clubs last week — The Station in West Warwick and E2 on Chicago's Near South Side — "there was no emergency evacuation plan, no emergency planning, no way to manage the crowd," says Wertheimer, the safety consultant.

Both clubs were overcrowded. The Station was believed to have about 40 patrons above its legal capacity of 300, and E2 had about 500 people in a space that wasn't supposed to be open at all. Chicago officials had gone to court in July to shut down the nightclub because of building- and fire-code violations, but it continued to operate.

Although fire and smoke are lethal enough, in many cases the most horrible killer is the crowd itself. Five people pushing with all their might can exert a force of 700 pounds or more, says Jake Pauls, a Maryland consultant in building use and safety.

At The Station, firefighters found 25 bodies jammed around the ruins of the front door. Another cluster of bodies was found between an exit and the stage. In Chicago, a police investigator likened patrons at E2 who rushed the front doors to "a cork in a bottle."

Robert Lawson, a University of Kentucky law professor who investigated the 1977 fire at the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Ky., that killed 165 people, says no one could forget the sight of bodies crushed against the exit doors. "They were stacked up like cordwood," Lawson says.

At the Cocoanut Grove fire, which killed 492 people in Boston in 1942, bodies were found pressed five and six deep against the exit doors, some of which were locked or opened inward.

In a club, you're on your own

A nightclub is not an airliner, and no rule requires a manager to get up before a show to tell patrons what to do in an emergency. Experts say that in case of danger in a club, assume you're on your own.

"When patrons walk into nightclubs, they should figure out where the exits are, whether it's a club or a restaurant or a rock concert," Boston Fire Commissioner Paul Christian says.

Last week's tragedies spurred prompt action around the country.

In Chicago, inspectors evacuated the second floor of a club early Sunday after finding overcrowding, blocked exits and other problems.
In Salem, Ore., a rock band competition was canceled after an inspection revealed the hall didn't meet fire and building codes.
In San Francisco, Fire Chief Mario Trevino sent an e-mail to his 2,000 workers urging them to review codes and rules affecting nightclubs.
In Charlotte, Fire Chief Luther Fincher reminded firefighters "to take your ticket books with you all the time" to cite violators. "We're a 24/7 operation," he told the public. "Call us if you see anything that looks dangerous or see an overcrowding situation."
In St. Paul, Fire Chief Tim Fuller predicted that fire officials across the nation "are going to call for a ban on pyrotechnics inside of buildings like this. What's really telling is the speed with which the fire in Rhode Island spread."
There is no national fire safety code. Some experts criticize what they say is a confusing stew of state and local regulations that change from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and take into account a variety of factors, from a building's age to its crowd capacity.

The Station, for instance, was too small and too old to be required to have sprinklers under Rhode Island law. But as he stood near the club's smoldering ruins, West Warwick Fire Chief Charles Hall says that if the club had a sprinkler system, "we wouldn't be standing here right now."

"There's a lack of standards across the country," says Pauls, the Maryland consultant. "Something has to change here."

Much already has.

"You can't legislate against human stupidity, but the purpose of our codes is to limit the consequences of it," says John Hall of the National Fire Protection Association, which develops model fire codes for states and municipalities.

Those codes have been adjusted after incidents such as the Beverly Hills club fire and the Happy Land Social Club fire in the Bronx, where 87 died in 1990.

As a result, most states and localities require less flammable construction materials, more and wider exit doors, better emergency lighting, exit signs and evacuation plans.

There are indications the laws are working. The National Fire Protection Association's database shows a steady, two-decade decline in the frequency and severity of deadly incidents. The number of nightclub fires dropped from 1,369 in 1980 to about 500 in 1999, the most recent year the association has figures. Deaths, injuries and property damage also decreased.

Even so, safety costs money, and as tragedy recedes into the past, people become less willing to pay the bill.

"There are lots of questions," says Donald Bliss, president of the National Association of State Fire Marshals. "What are the practicalities of forcing (fire code) upgrades, and what are the reasonable costs to maintain a building? Trying to find a happy medium depending on construction, use and size of a building is always the challenge."

Capt. Stanley Perkins of the Los Angeles County Fire Department says most club owners are cooperative, but they occasionally bring up the cost of safety requirements. "We just stop the conversation right there. We tell them, your concern is money. Our concern is people," Perkins says.

Although The Station was not required to have sprinklers because it was built before changes were made to the state safety codes, it did have to upgrade other areas of fire protection. The four exits were marked with illuminated signs that would remain lit by batteries should the power failed. Emergency battery-powered lighting was installed. Fire extinguishers were placed in crucial locations, and a fire alarm was connected to a fire station.

Monday, a rock band playing at the Fine Line Music Cafe in Minneapolis also set off unauthorized pyrotechnics and started a fire in the club's ceiling. But the club had sprinklers because it was built after upgraded fire regulations. The fire was quickly extinguished, and the 120 patrons evacuated without injury. The club had about $100,000 damage.

Rethinking pyrotechnics

After last week's tragedies, musicians who frequently play clubs say they are likely to pay more attention to safety.

Greg Joseph, bass player with The Clarks, says his band already has made a subtle change in routine. At Cleveland's Odeon nightclub over the weekend, "we did a check around, basically checking where the nearest exits were to the stage for our own safety and security," Joseph says. "You may never need to use that little bit of information, but what information you have could save you."

Ben "Devil" Rew, a singer with the band Camarosmith, says he and the other four members of the '70s-style rock band are rethinking their use of pyrotechnics.

Hip-hop artists say they're concerned about security. "You really have to be careful," says Crescent Moon, one of five members of Oddjobs. "A lot of venues I walk into, I make sure I know how to get out if something happens."

Experts say audiences have to be vigilant, too, and offer advice:

When you enter a room, note ways to leave other than how you came in. When trouble hits, most people rush to the door they had entered, even if it's not the safest or quickest exit. The result is a human logjam.
Chris Travis, a regular at The Station, bypassed the panicked crowd trying to get through the front door and found his way to an exit by the bar. "Everyone was making a mad dash for the front door," he says. "If I had tried to go that way, I wouldn't be here today."

Note how crowded the room is. If it's over legal capacity or simply feels too crowded for comfort, leave.
If you're getting intoxicated, remember you might need all your wits in an emergency.
If you see something that looks unsafe — a locked exit door or a dark or obscured exit sign — call the police or fire department immediately.
If you sense something is wrong, don't wait for an alarm. Trust your senses and leave. "If something doesn't feel right, it probably isn't right," says Gary Keith of the National Fire Protection Association. "If you're wrong, you can always come back in."
Minute or two cost lives

In the Rhode Island club, "people's response to the fire was delayed by a minute or two," says Pauls, the consultant. "And that minute or two cost them their lives." Fire officials say fire engulfed the building within three minutes.

The issue of club security has become even more complicated since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In the Chicago club, the owner's lawyer had said panic spread after someone yelled "terrorist attack."

"We're only seeing the tip of the iceberg here in terms of heightened security conditions we live under today," Pauls says. "All bets are off in all types of buildings, not just nightclubs." In large stadiums and arenas, the consultant says, "the potential of loss of life is many, many, many times higher."

Despite the changes in codes after each such disaster, history suggests that sooner or later some building owners and club operators will cut corners to save money. Some patrons will forget about the potential danger. And some inspectors will ease up.

Some who have studied club disasters are resigned to the conclusion that no matter how fire codes are written or how buildings are constructed, a similar disaster will happen again.

"These things seem inevitable, says Lawson, the law professor who studied the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire. "After something like this, we're sensitive for a while, and we have decent intentions to make improvements. But as time goes on, we revert to our old ways. As soon as the story goes off the front page, we begin to forget about it. It's human nature, I'm sorry to say."

He says he was struck by the similarities between the Beverly Hills club fire and the Cocoanut Grove fire, even though the latter happened 35 years earlier and supposedly had educated clubs on how to avoid a future catastrophe.

He found the same problems: an overcrowded room with too few exits and blocked exits, no fire safety plan and combustible wall coverings. It was as if Cocoanut Grove had never happened.

The problem seems to lie at the heart of what makes a good club. "Everyone wants a full house" — owners, performers, patrons, Lawson says. A club isn't much of a club if it's not crowded. But with a crowd comes a danger.

Over the weekend, Rhode Island Gov. Donald Carcieri said what officials in his position have said for years after such massacres: "I want to make sure that what we saw here does not happen again."

 
 
 
   
 
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