“It’s Very Remote Something Like That Would Happen Here.”

So said Rhode Island's Fire Marshall February 20, 2003, commenting on a nightclub stampede that killed 21 three days before in Chicago -- eight hours before The Station Fire that killed 100 in Warwick, RI. Tomorrow is the tenth anniversary of that horrible disaster.
AS the band Great White came on stage at 11:07pm, fireworks are set off inside The Station nightclub has more than 400 crowded inside the building. At 11:08, the fire alarm sounds. One minute later, as flames shimmy up the walls next to the stage, the lights go out. Then, just two minutes after, the club is fully engulfed in fire.

I happened to be on business in the area when this catastrophe occurred and remember it well. As a primary goal of this blog is saving lives and mitigating risks, I wish to remind our readers of the lessons learned in this horrible event.

The Providence Journal has an well-researched and detailed time line. As you review it, note the number of times the government officials charged with fire safety failed in their duties. In addition to the government failings in the time line, the club was legally required to have a sprinkler system but fire officials never noticed its absence. That is why you need to take responsibility for your own safety.

Below is the extraordinary video that shows, from the inside, how this disaster unfolded. A local TV station was taping there because of the aforementioned tragedy in Chicago. The fireworks are set off at 6:22 in the video.

While I was at the University of Oklahoma (I've led an interesting life) during the Vietnam War, anti-war terrorists firebombed a number of buildings on campus, including my dormitory, Walker Tower. At about 3:30am, someone pounded on our eighth floor door shouting "the building is on fire, get out!" I was up getting ready for my TV weather job at WKY TV, I grabbed my wallet and opened the door: The smoke was flowing about two feet thick down from the ceiling. We tried to go down one fire escape but the smoke and heat were too great. Went down a second escape and had to crawl because the smoke was now down to about two feel above the floor. It was so thick you could not see your hand in front of your face. So, with this experience in mind, I offer the following:
  • Do you keep your smoke alarm batteries fresh? Do you occasionally press the "test" button?
  • Do you know what the fire alarm at your office sounds like? Do you know two ways out of your building?
  • Do you understand it is critical to get out as quickly as you can at the first sign of smoke, heat, or flame? Studies have shown that people confer with each other and debate what to do when trouble presents itself. This was briefly true in Walker Tower, it was true in the World Trade Center, and I've seen it in tornado warnings. Don't wait! Who cares if it is later a false alarm?
  • It is vital to stay in the good air near the floor. More people die of smoke inhalation than flame. Don't let false bravado keep you from crawling, but move as quickly as possible. 
  • Once you are out, help others exit but only if it is safe to do so. Someone tripped exiting the nightclub, causing a fatal pileup at the exit. People were literally stacked on top of each other, unable to move. Eventually, two heroes began to pull people off the top of the pile. 
People literally stacked on top of each other at the exit.
Eventually, volunteers were pulling people off the top of the pile. 
  • Keep out of the way of the fire department. The video unbelievably shows automobiles driving in the path of the fire engines! 
And, now a plea: At about the 4:00 mark in the video, less than two and a half minutes before the fire, the videographer happened to get a photo of the fire exit sign.

As required by U.S. fire code, it is above the door. This is the wrong place. As visible in the video, the smoke builds down from the ceiling and rapidly obscures the signs.

In Mexico, the fire escape signs are about 18" above the floor so you can see them when trying to make an escape. I urge U.S. fire code to be amended to add signs near the floor so you can actually see them when needed. 

You are responsible for your safety. If something doesn't seem right -- take immediate action. 


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