A spontaneous fire ignited by a pyrotechnics display engulfed a single-story nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island, on Thursday, February 20, 2003. Members of the band Great White and owners of The Station will both face an inquest from fire investigators trying to assess responsibility in this preventable catastrophe.
The death toll has risen to 99 people who died as a result of the fire. Many badly burned patrons remain as patients in area hospitals. Combustible material found on the walls utilized as sound insulation fed the fire started by the pyrotechnic display, which had not been granted a required fire permit.
Apparently, simple 19th Century technology could have saved most of the lives lost. Had a sprinkler system been installed, many more concert patrons would have survived the fire. The National Fire Protection Association exempts buildings that have 300 or less capacity levels from installing mandatory sprinkler systems.
The NFPA has defended it's position not requiring sprinklers for buildings with less than 300 patrons present. Oddly enough, fire officials commented that the snow present on the ground helped many patrons extinguish fires on their clothing and soothe burns on their body. 180 individuals were injured in the uncontrolled blaze.
Members of Great White have provided Grand Jury testimony and face law suits in the aftermath of the deadly nightclub fire. Search warrant records filed in Kent County District Court indicate fire investigators probing the debris have recovered the leather jacket owned by Great White guitarist Ty Longley who died in the fire.
Great White launched their set around 11:00 p.m., with giant pyrotechnic sparklers and kept playing as the fire spread up the wall onto the ceiling over the band. The audience did not initially react to the emerging fire. Vocalist Jack Russell acknowledged feeling heat, and a videotape cameraman captured the entire incident as it unfolded.
Panic raced through the crowd as patrons rushed for the main doors not using other available fire exit doors. Bodies stacked up upon each other in the doorway and the hallway as patrons fell victim to the raging fire. News reports suggest polyurethane foam was used as soundproofing inside The Station.
The lights failed and black smoke made a dangerous situation even worse inside the club as patrons struggled to escape the inferno. Fire investigators estimate the air was consumed by fire within three minutes. Victims screamed for their lives and perished as the building burned down to the ground.
Jack Russell, vocalist for Great White, stated he checked with the club's manager before the concert and that the band's use of pyrotechnics had been approved. He said he felt the heat of the flames while on stage. "This place went up like the Fourth of July", he said.
"All of a sudden I felt a lot of heat", Jack Russell, the band's lead singer, told CNN. "I see the foam's on fire. ... The next thing you know the whole place is in flames". He said he started dousing the fire with a water bottle but couldn't put it out, then all the lights went out. "I just couldn't believe how fast it went up", he said.
Brian Butler was filming the concert for WPRI-TV and saw the flames spread across the ceiling and people rush for the doors. "People were trying to help others and people were smashing out windows, and people were pulling on people and nobody cared how many cuts they got, nobody cared about the bruises or the burns", Butler stated. "They just wanted out of the building".
"The entire club was consumed by flames within three minutes", West Warwick Fire Chief Charles Hall said Friday. The Station had recently passed a fire inspection to renew it's liquor license, but had not obtained a city permit for pyrotechnics. The nightclub was not required to have a sprinkler system.
"Most of the bodies were found near the front exit, some of them burned and others dead from smoke inhalation", Hall said. He said some appeared to have been trampled in the rush to escape. "They tried to go out the same way they came in. That was the problem", Hall said. "They didn't use the other three fire exits".
Scores of firefighters and police from around the region and multiple ambulances appeared on the scene. Rescuers pulled badly injured victims from the blaze as ladder trucks doused water over the flaming skeleton of the nightclub.
Rhode Island Gov. Don Carcieri released a statement; "Our hearts go out to all of them. Our hearts and prayers to all of the families that have been impacted by this. ... There's no words to describe", Carcieri said. "This is a terrible tragedy. It should not have occurred. Why it occurred is one of the questions that needs to be answered".
Robin Petrarca, 44, was standing within 5 feet of the door, but she said the billowing smoke was so thick, she couldn't see the exit. In the rush to escape, she fell and was trampled, but made it out. "There was nothing they could do, it went up so fast", she said. The fire broke out across the ceiling above the band, and quickly spread over the crowd, filling the building with thick, black smoke.
Great White is a heavy metal band whose hits include "Once Bitten, Twice Shy" and "Rock Me." The band emerged in the Los Angeles metal scene of the late 1980s, selling 6 million albums and earning a Grammy nomination in 1990. They continued to tour and make albums in recent years, maintaining a strong allegiance of fans from their glory days of the 1980s. The evening bill also featured the Canadian group Fathead.
Mitt Namlitt CyberSnews@yahoo.com
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tragedy claims 99 lives
Pyrotechnic sparklers torch West Warwick nightclub
by Timothy Tilghman