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
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
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).
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
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
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
Last week's tragedies spurred prompt action around the
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
In San Francisco, Fire Chief Mario Trevino sent an e-mail
to his 2,000 workers urging them to review codes and rules
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
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
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.
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
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
"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
"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."