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Lessons Learned From A Devastating Structure Fire

Posted on June 27 2018

On the evening of Thursday, February 20th, 2003 in West Warwick, Rhode Island, 462 people attend a concert by the rock bank Great White at the Station Nightclub. The total number of people inside of the building far exceeds the maximum capacity of the club’s official licensed capacity which is 404.

During the band’s opening song, a set of illegal pyrotechnics are set off by the band’s management. The illegal pyrotechnics ignite the venue’s sound absorbing foam, causing a fire to spread throughout the building. With only one exit available for the mass of people to utilize, and a serious lack of fire suppression present in the building, 100 individuals will tragically perish, with another 230 people being injured.

The following footage was recorded by a local cameraman for WPRI-TV of Providence, Rhode Island. The footage contained in this video is used for educational purposes only and contains scenes and sounds that some may find disturbing. Viewer discretion is advised.

It takes less than 30 seconds for the pyrotechnics on stage to reach the Incipient stage of a fire. The Incipient stage of a fire is when heat, oxygen, and a fuel source all combine to create a chemical reaction that results in a fire, which can be seen behind the stage at the end of the pyrotechnic effects. A few people in the crowd recognize that this is not the intended effect of the pyrotechnics, and they start to make their way to the door. For others, it takes them too long to recognize the threat, and they remain close to the stage where the fire is just starting.

In the time it takes the cameraman to reach the primary exit the fire moves through the growth stage of fire. During the growth stage of a fire, it consumes anything that it can use for fuel, and continues to grow until reaching a flashover point. In the case of Station Nightclub, the flashover point was reached roughly 60 seconds after the fire began, with temperatures reaching over 1000 degrees Fahrenheit, which is high enough to ignite anything combustible, including human beings.

Everyone inside of the nightclub, except for the band and a few employees, were directed to use the front entrance of the club to escape the fire because the primary fire exit was blocked off for the band. As the fire peaked in intensity, and the smoke started to choke individuals inside of the club, people’s flight instincts began to kick in and a mob flooded into the hallway leading to the exit. This mob mentality caused people to become trapped in the exit doorway by a mass of bodies which prevented the crowd behind from being able to escape the building.

In the aftermath of the fire, 96 people were killed. Four additional people died at the hospital from their injuries, with another 230 injured during their escapes and subsequent attempts to rescue other people. Even with a fast response time, the fire department and EMS were not able to arrive on scene for five minutes, which is four minutes longer than it took for the fire to become fully developed, immolating the individuals trapped in the exit hallways.

When you enter a crowded venue, always ensure that you know where every available exit is in the event of a fire, and mentally walk yourself through that escape plan before anything bad has a chance to happen. Make a secondary escape plan as well, just in case your initial plan becomes an impossibility during an emergency.  Plan to stay low to the ground to avoid inhaling smoke and escape as soon as a fire starts because they can reach dangerous flashover points in just a matter of seconds, as seen in this instance.

Three people were sentenced to prison in the aftermath of this event, including the band manager who set off the pyrotechnics without the proper permits.  A National Institute of Standards and Technology study later concluded that any standard fire sprinkler system would have combatted the fire long enough for everyone to escape the building. This event also forced an amendment to safety codes that made a sprinkler system mandatory for any venue that could hold more than 100 occupants.

2 comments

  • Bob: June 28, 2018

    Just had a very good class on building safety and this was used for an example. There were other possible exits that could have let more out of the building. But the Mass of folks there had gone in the front door. This created the urge to exit there even if a second or third option was even available once the danger became apparent. The instructor was a friend of people who perished there. His take as a highly trained individual (Military, Medical, LEO) was that upon entry look for at least three options to exit. Windows were available that were not broken out and used. Things like that could have made a difference in a loss like this.

  • Tim: June 28, 2018
    A week before this happened I was working at an auto parts store. A guy walks in looking for a tiny screw. I found one. When the man went to pay he realized he forgot his wallet at the bar across the street. The screw was like 0.90 cents. I told the man not to worry about it.

    The man was so thankful he asked my name and told me he’d put me on the VIP list to get into the bar to hear his band play.
    Turns out the guy was Ty Longley. Life is weird.

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