The Station Nightclub Fire: Facts, History & Legal Issues

A terrible tragedy occurred on 20 February 2003 at the Station Nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island. The fire that gutted down the whole building was said to have been caused by the use of unapproved pyrotechnics, which was used as part of a show put on by the Great White band.

Station Nightclub Fire Facts

  • The pyrotechnics were set off a few seconds before the show could begin but accidentally ignited the soundproofing polyurethane foam located on the ceiling and walls proximate to the performing stage.
  • A few minutes after the ignition, the whole building was set ablaze with over 430 revelers inside.
  • Approximately 100 people were killed in the inferno, over 50 were injured during the stampede while over 200 escaped with minor injuries.
  • The egress was slowed by a large number of people trying to escape through the main entrance.
  • As a result of the worst fire tragedy in the last decade, there have been many questions raised on the efficacy of fire combating techniques within buildings and the ability of extinguishers to salvage the most out of such a situation.

Station Nightclub Fire Report

With comprehensive research on “The Station Nightclub” incidence, this paper seeks to address various issues that pertain to the subject.

As such, the paper evaluates if the effects of the incident on live performances, especially with the use of pyrotechnics were permanent and whether it resulted in the development of legal codes to be applied by such joints.

This paper also discusses the effects of the fire incident on structural requirements of nightclubs, especially the painting or obstruction of windows and other emergency exit requirements.

Lastly, the paper evaluates the legal framework relative to the fire incidences in nightclubs; assessing legal provisions that existed before the Station Nightclub fire incidence and those regulatory frameworks that were developed after the accident.

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Background of the Nightclub

In order to effectively assess the impacts of the fire and whether the incidence was an accident due toigence, it is imperative that we establish the underlying facts about the nightclub and its operations.

The nightclub building was significantly aged since it was built in 1946 and had undergone several remodels and renovations as it changed ownership.

The rate of fire spread was accelerated due to the fact that the structure was a single-story wooden building of approximately 4,480 square feet.

Patrons would enter the club through the main entrance that was located on the northern side of the building.

Although there were other entrances and exit points to the structure, very few people were aware of them since the west-side opening which was adjacent to the performance stage was assumed to be the entry for VIP and performing artists.

There were also large windows on the north side of the building on both sides of the main entrance.

The third door was also situated on the eastern wing of the structure, while the fourth one was fitted in the kitchen, but only the employees of the club were aware of this exit point.

On the fateful night, the Great White band was in attendance and was warming up for a live performance. As part of their show, the band had a tendency of including pyrotechnic devices. These were located on either side of the fore-platform.

The stunt was such that the pyrotechnics be ignited a few seconds before the band hit the stage in order to liven up the occasion.

The ignited pyrotechnics provided intense heat that was enough to ignite polyurethane soundproofing foam, which was the main component of walls and ceiling just adjacent to the stage.

The fast-spreading fire caught the wooden frames and aggravated the consumption. According to the NIST final report, an estimated 95 percent of the fuel load consisted of the wooden structure and paneling (NIST Final Report, 2005).

Use of Pyrotechnics in Live Performance

The Station Nightclub fire incidence was largely attributed to the use of pyrotechnics and the structural composition of the club, which exacerbated the rate of fire spread throughout the building.

Pyrotechnics is a technique of using materials that can undergo self-sustained exothermic chemical reactions which results in the production of heat, light, smoke, or gas and sound.

In the entertainment industry, pyrotechnics involves the use of fireworks, which is meant to add sparkle and glamour to an event (Harrington, Biffl & Cioffi, 2005).

Although the fire was largely linked to the use of pyrotechnics in the club, little blame was shifted to the use of these techniques, and the materials are still largely used in entertainment schemes.

The pyrotechnics used during the live performance was initiated by Daniel Biechele, the Great White band’s tour manager.

The manager used three sets of gerbs to create spray sparks approximately 4.5 meters high for 15 seconds before the band could enter the stage.

Two gerbs were positioned on either side of the stage at 45 degrees while the third one was placed at the center of the stage pointing straight up.

Initially, people inside the hall thought that the flames resulting from gerb sparks were part of the display but later realized that that the situation was growing out of control.

Approximately twenty seconds after the pyrotechnics ended, the band stopped playing on realizing that the ceiling had already started catching fire with heat and smoke filling the concert hall.

The official license capacity for the club was a maximum of 404 persons whereas the club had been packed with 468 people in attendance. One hundred people perished in the inferno, including the band’s lead guitarist, the event emcee, and the music DJ.

More than 50 individuals were injured either from smoke inhalation, burns or trampling. After the tragedy, the then Governor Donald Carcieri declared a moratorium against the use of pyrotechnics in clubs that held less than 300 people (Harrington, Biffl & Cioffi, 2005).

The use of pyrotechnics was permitted in entertainment spots especially nightclubs under model codes subject to prequalification of conditions and approval of authorities having jurisdiction (AHJ).

Under the NFPA Life Safety Code 101, a pyrotechnical operator is expected to submit a written plan that includes the date, time, and location of an event, and the qualifications of the director within 24 hours of the event (NFPA, 2003).

Although the nightclub was not under a model code, there were some protocols that should have been followed while using the pyrotechnics.

After the incident, fire personnel from West Warwick confirmed that apparently, neither the band nor the club had obtained the necessary state permissions to use pyrotechnics.

Although the band’s lead singer stated that they had informed the club, through the band manager, that they would be using the pyrotechnics, the club owners refuted these claims stating that they did not have any prior knowledge of the band’s intentions of using pyrotechnics.

The Issue of Egress Windows and Exit System

The importance of a swift means of egress was highlighted when victims of The Station fire were bottlenecked inside the building as they tried to escape.

As discussed in the previous section, there were a number of factors that exacerbated the tragedy including lack of fire suppression equipment, but perhaps what contributed to the high number of deaths was the lack of an efficient exit system that would have facilitated the rapid evacuation of the revelers trapped inside the facility.

The victims of the fire were trapped inside the burning building because it lacked sufficient means of egress such as egress windows.

The club patrons recognized the danger 24 seconds after the pyrotechnics had already ignited the wall and ceiling foam materials (NIST, 2005).

Approximately two-thirds of the building occupants scammed to leave the building through the main entrance which disrupted the process of evacuation. The emergency escape windows would have allowed the victims to rush outside and prevent massive deaths.

Station Nightclub Fire Report Findings

Assessment reports indicated that the building had only five exit doors with one double-swing door as the main entrance.

This was the only door that was known by patrons as the main exit point. The other exit points were either concealed or victims were not aware of their existence.

Therefore, by the time of the tragedy, there were no egress windows that could facilitate the escape of victims from the main hall.

The windows available on the entrance side of the building were used for sunning and thus were tinted to prevent direct sunlight.

Nonetheless, the windows in the sunroom and the main bar section facilitated the evacuation of nearly a third of successful people rescued.

During the 2000 period, egress windows were actually a hot topic for discussion. However, the changes to the building codes came too late to save the victims of the fire tragedy.

In the year 2000, the national building codes had been updated and required basement apartments to have a means of egress for emergency exit in case of an eventuality.

These codes were adopted a few years later to apply to other buildings such as nightclubs.

According to the Department of Fire Services codes, egress doors may remain unlocked, unbolted or unobstructed such that the door may not be opened from the inside by the use of pressure or panic hardware.

Similarly, the codes provide that tables and chairs inside the building shall be arranged such that it provides for ready access to each egress door. The isles leading to each of the designated egress doors should not measure less than 44 inches in width.

As such, the isles should not be obstructed by chairs, tables, or other objects. The exit signs and lighting as required in assembly places should be kept in proper lighting conditions at all times and installed in accordance with 780 CMR.

Structural Requirement Changes due to the Fire

The magnitude of the fire that gutted down the Station Nightclub invoked a swift response from government and non-governmental agencies including code developing bodies.

A number of actions were immediately proposed and implemented either as temporary or permanent guidelines for the entertainment organizations regarding fire emergency preparedness and safety measures.

The Standards Council of National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) developed tentative interim amendments with a view of addressing some life safety issues that were raised by the fire incidence at West Warwick.

The amendments mainly dealt with sprinklers, crowd management, occupancy levels, and means of egress.

A research was conducted on fire protection systems that had been installed by the nightclub before the fateful night and included in the report filed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

Station Nightclub Fire Code Changes

From the report, it can be established that the club did not have a sprinkler system, which was found to be instrumental in suppressing the spread of fire (Harrington, Biffl & Cioffi, 2005).

A computer simulation of the incidence by the NIST demonstrated that a water sprinkler system installed would have been able to contain the fire and reduce the number of deaths.

The 2003 model codes required that all new buildings be installed with sprinkler systems as a precautionary measure for combating any fire eventuality.

The Nightclub did not require to install this safety apparatus because it was exempt from the requirement, given the number of years it had been in existence.

The tentative interim amendment (TIA) approved in July 2003 a requirement that sprinklers be fitted in existing nightclub facilities venues having more than 100 occupant loads.

The board also outlined that a restriction is imposed on festival seating in existing and new facilities if the occupant load exceeded 250 unless the facility was assessed for life-safety.

Similarly, a number of recommendations and proposals for changes to existing codes were submitted to the International Code Council (ICC) during its September 2003 public hearing. These proposals were driven by experience gotten from

The Station fire incidence. Among the proposals that were approved was a requirement that all foam plastics used in constructing entertainment facilities be covered with a vinyl or textile facing in order to pass a flame spread test.

The council approved this code because of the ease with which polyurethane soundproofing materials used to cover the internal walls of The Station were ignited by pyrotechnics (Harrington, Biffl & Cioffi, 2005).

Following the massive number of victims from this incident, the State of Rhode Island also acted swiftly to re-evaluate its own building and fire codes. The state government formed a special legislative commission to hold hearings and present a report to the governor.

Following the recommendations provided by this task force, the Fire Safety Code of the State of Rhode Island was significantly amended by the Comprehensive Fire safety Act of 2003. Among the standards that were addressed by the new Act included the following:

  • The use of up-to-date fire safety codes across the board and thus elimination of the umbrella clause,
  • Strictly regulate the use of pyrotechnics in large social venues such as nightclubs,
  • Mandate the use of sprinklers in nightclubs and all Class A and Class B places of assembly,
  • Provide greater enforcement powers to fire marshals and enhance their capacity in making inspections, immediate abatement of conditions that are deemed to pose an imminent threat to the safety of the public, and inspect night clubs during their operating hours, and
  • Establish a comprehensive planning requirement that will enable the state to identify weaknesses in its future approach to fire safety (Comprehensive Fire safety Act 2003).

Fire Codes Existing Prior to and after The Nightclub Incident

In 1946, when the nightclub facility was constructed, various model codes have been adopted and amended while others have been introduced.

There are numerous building and fire codes that would have reduced the number of fatalities could they have been implemented.

However, there were still other codes developed after the fire incidence to strengthen the existing model codes and prevent such tragedies from occurring over and again.

This section shall compare the codes that existed prior to the fire incident and those that were developed as a result of the tragedy.

There are two model codes: the International Building Code (IBC) 2003 and the Building Construction and Safety Code (NFPA) 2003, which should have been implemented effectively by the club’s management to reduce the severity of the tragedy.

Although this report does not primarily focus on compliance or non-compliance with these codes, it discusses the relevant models that were in existence prior to the fire and those that were implemented after the incident.

Both the NFPA and IBC provide regulation for the area in which a building should be erected and its height relative to fire and emergency rescue situations.

The IBC table 503 limits the area of Group A-2 type VB to 6,000 ft2 and one story. On the other hand, the NFPA 5000 limits assembly occupancy load greater than 300 and less than 1000 individuals to 5,500 ft2 and one story.

According to the report compiled by NIST, the West Warwick tax records indicated that the main floor of The Station Nightclub building was 4,484 ft2 while the basement was 840 ft2.

This implies that the occupancy of the building exceeded the regulatory requirements since the floor area was smaller relative to the number of patrons inside the club.

Similarly, both of these codes allow an increase in the area based on the open perimeter. However, IBC allows for an increase in the height of the building in case the building meets the sprinkler protection.

In retrospect, the task force found out that the building did not have sprinkler protection since the law did not provide for such already-established buildings but rather new constructions.

In terms of interior finishing, both NFPA and IBC regulate the nature of interior finishing materials that should be used.

Chapter 8 of the IBC and Chapter 10 of the NFPA 5000 provide that the interior finishing materials should be flame-tested in order to eliminate the possibility of using highly flammable materials.

The NFPA code chapter 16 provides that the interior finishes that are composed of wood paneling, sheathing boards, and beard board must have a flame spread rating less than or equal to 75 and a smoke development index of 450 or less (Leonard, 2010).

However, if the interior is enhanced with sprinkler protection, then the flame spread index is allowed up to 200.

The IBC regulates the use of plastic interiors, requiring that foam plastics that are used for interior finishing to have a flame spread index of not more than 75, be well labeled and have a smoke development index of less than or equal to 450.

The interior finishing of the building had wood paneling, painted gypsum, beadboard, wafer board, and ceramic tiles.

The majority of wood paneling used in the building consisted of plywood. According to tests, plywood has a flame spread test of between 70 and 160.

However, the natural aging of such materials can significantly influence its flame spread index.

IBC Section 903 requires that new constructions under group A-2 must be protected by automatic sprinkler ids any of the following requirements are exceeded:

  • The fire area should be greater than 12,000 ft2
  • The occupant load should be greater than 300 persons, and
  • The fire area should be located other than the floor exit discharge.

On its side, the NFPA 5000 required that automatic sprinkler systems be fitted on any building with occupancy of more than 300 persons.

These model codes provide that buildings be fitted with automatic sprinkler systems based on factors such as building area, occupancy, building height, construction type, occupant load, and location relative to the exit discharge.

For new construction of the type of building under the case, the models require an automatic sprinkler for occupancy load greater than 300 persons.

The Station Nightclub building did not have an automatic sprinkler system (Leonard, 2010).

Exits

The model codes provided for the measurements, location, and operation of exit points before the tragedy struck.

According to NFPA 5000 section 11.2 and IBC section 10008.1, doors should provide a clear exit opening measuring at least 0.81 m.

The codes provide that doors shall swing in the direction of egress travel if they are meant to serve a space with more than 50 persons.

All exit doors on the building exceeded 0.81 inches and all swung in the direction of egress travel.

NFPA section 16 and IBC section 1008.1 mandate that panic hardware is fitted on doors that have latches and locks with an assembly having an occupant load greater than or equal to 100 persons.

The study conducted by NIST found that the right leaf of the front exit door did not have panic hardware. However, the door to exit number 2 was fitted with panic hardware.

Occupation Load

The models existing before the fire incident computed occupant load limits based on the floor area and egress capacity.

According to IBC section 1004.2, the occupant load capacity can be increased above the required limit if the other egress provisions are met and the load does not exceed 5 square feet per person.

These provisions are also contained in the NFPA 5000 code section 11.3.1.3.

The net space provided for by these codes excludes passageways, restrooms, and space assigned for other uses such as the space behind the kitchen and bar.

On the basis of egress capacity, factors related to the minimum clear width required for exit passageways are used. The following table provides the egress capacity provisions for both IBC and NFPA 5000 codes.

Egress Capacity Provisions
Occupancy Without Sprinkler System mm/person With Sprinkler System mm/person
IBC 1005.1 NFPA 5000 IBC Table 1005.1 NFPA 5000
Level components and Ramps 5.1 5.1 3.8 5.1
Stairway 7.6 7.6 5.1 7.6

Code Changes since the Fire Tragedy

As a result of the E2 and Nightclub fire incidences, the Standards Council reviewed and issued the tentative interim amendments recommendations issued by the technical committee for the NFPA 101 Life Safety Code and NFPA 5000 Building Construction and Safety Codes 2003.

The Tentative Interim Amendments, which were effected in August 2003 had the following changes:

  • Automatic fire sprinklers be fitted both in new nightclubs and existing facilities that has occupancy load more than 100,
  • There should be at least one trained crowd manager for all assemblies saves for religious services. For larger crowds, there should be additional crowd managers in the ratio of 1:250,
  • Facility owners should inspect exit points and ensure that they are free of any form of obstruction. They should also maintain records of each inspection,
  • Prohibit festival seating if the number of persons involved exceeds 250 unless an Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) has performed a life-safety evaluation. According to NFPA 101, festival seating is a form of audience accommodation in which no seating other than the ground or floor surface is provided for the audience.

Similarly, following the massive number of victims from this incident, the State of Rhode Island acted swiftly to re-evaluate its own building and fire codes.

The state government formed a special legislative commission to hold hearings and present a report to the governor.

Following the recommendations provided by this task force, the Fire Safety Code of the State of Rhode Island was significantly amended by the Comprehensive Fire safety Act of 2003.

Among the standards that were addressed by the new Act included the following:

  • The use of up-to-date fire safety codes across the board and thus elimination of the umbrella clause,
  • Strictly regulate the use of pyrotechnics in large social venues such as nightclubs,
  • Mandate the use of sprinklers in nightclubs and all Class A and Class B places of assembly,
  • Provide greater enforcement powers to fire marshals and enhance their capacity in making inspections, immediate abatement of conditions that are deemed to pose an imminent threat to the safety of the public, and inspect night clubs during their operating hours, and
  • Establish a comprehensive planning requirement that will enable the state to identify weaknesses in its future approach to fire safety.

Conclusion on Station Nightclub Fire

The lessons learned from the tragic fire accident that gutted down The Station Nightclub claiming one hundred lives are that fire safety inspections and code enforcement must be prioritized within various organizations.

This paper has shown how lack of adherence to existing fire codes can be catastrophic. It emerged that untreated polyurethane foam and the unauthorized use of pyrotechnics were the main cause of the fire.

However, the incident resulted in the development of other legal codes that ensured stricter regulation of the building industry in terms of fire safety.

References on Station Nightclub Fire Facts

  • Arsenault, M. (2007). Building Official: R.I code required sprinklers. The Providence Journal. Web. Comprehensive Fire Safety Act (2003)
  • Harrington, D. T., Biffl, W. L., & Cioffi, W. G. (2005). The station nightclub fire. Journal of Burn Care & Research, 26(2), 141-143.
  • International Building Code (2003). International Code Council, Inc., Country Club Hills.
  • Leonard, B. (Ed.). (2010). Fire in the United States 2003-2007. DIANE Publishing.
  • National Institute of Standards and Technology (2005). Report of the Technical Investigation of The Station Nightclub Fire (NIST NCSTAR 2: Vol. 1), Washington, DC U.S. Government Printing Office.
  • NFPA 101, Life Safety Code (2003).
  • NFPA Building Construction and Safety Code (2005).

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