Station Nightclub Fire

Welcome to the first fire disaster post of the series! Update!!

Each week I will take you through some of the world’s most devastating fire disasters, bringing to the forefront the many harrowing chain of events that come together to turn a potential fire into a disaster. By bringing such fire tragedies to your attention, this will help to keep the memory of those who died live on.

You can find a transcribed reading of this blog post on my Fire Disaster Podcast!

Check out my audio version of this blog post

It was important to begin this series with a case that has perplexed me since it occurred in 2003. At a somewhat impressionable age, while on YouTube, I stumbled across a horrifying video that showed the disaster unfold before my very eyes. This shocking disaster awakened me to what can unfold if the correct fire safety regulations are not put in place. No doubt being the catalyst to driving my career into fire investigation.

Right! Let us get into this evenings case.

On Thursday, February 20, 2003, the Station Nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island was to become the scene of the 4th deadliest nightclub fire disaster in US History.

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The venue was described as a glam metal, and rock n roll themed nightclub, popular with the locals. The Nightclub was hosting a program with several bands, including the headlining act, Great White. A news reporter Jeff Derderian wanted to run a story on nightclub safety.  Following events in the days prior, that saw the fatal crowd crush incident at a Chicago nightclub, which claimed the lives of 21 people. Triggered after bouncers used pepper spray to break up a fight between two women.

Since he co-owned the station nightclub with his brother Michael, Jeff suggested it as a venue for generic nightclub footage.  His cameraman Brian Butler was at the Station nightclub videoing when the headline act came onto the stage. 

At approximately 1108 pm, as the Great White began the song the now-infamous”Desert Moon”, their tour manager activated pyrotechnics positioned either side of the stage platform. Sadly, the resultant sparks from the pyrotechnics ignited foam insulated soundproofing that lined the walls of the stage. The video footage provided a morbid recollection of the event in real-time while detailing the exact origin and cause of the fire, which was vital in the later investigation process. 

The footage also depicted the astonishing rate of the flame’s initial growth, while showing the actions of the clubgoers as they tried to get to safety. Within 36 seconds of ignition, the first calls to fire control began to flood in, mainly, calls from those inside the club. Screams were heard as people raced to leave the inferno.

As they tried to leave the building, many clubgoers became jammed in the front exit doorway.  

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There were a total of four exit points in the club, including a stage exit, main side exit, kitchen exit and front exit doors.  It was alleged that some clubgoers were prevented from leaving the stage exit. And, many others were unaware of the kitchen and bar exit doors This led to an overflow at the front entrance doorway.

The fire brigade arrived 5 minutes after ignition; sadly, at this stage, flames were observed coming from the front entrance doorway. More video footage from outside the venue showed in horrific detail; victims wedged inside the front doorway. Could you imagine the scene that the firefighters arrived to? Those poor people!

As news of this horrific event broke out, as you may have guessed, the public outcry was significant. At least 200 people were injured as a result, with another 132 managing to escape unharmed.  Sadly, 100 people lost their lives in this fire.  Two days after the disaster, a memorial service was attended by thousands of mourners.

Could you imagine the scene that those firefighters arrived to?

There were a total of four exit points in the club, including a stage exit, main side exit, kitchen exit and front exit doors.  It was alleged that some clubgoers were prevented from leaving the stage exit. And, many others were unaware of the kitchen and bar exit doors This led to an overflow at the front entrance doorway.

The fire brigade arrived 5 minutes after ignition; sadly, at this stage, flames were observed coming from the front entrance doorway. More video footage from outside the venue showed in horrific detail; victims wedged inside the front doorway. Could you imagine the scene that the firefighters arrived to? Those poor people!

As news of this horrific event broke out, as you may have guessed, the public outcry was significant. 

At least 200 people were injured as a result, with another 132 managing to escape unharmed.  Sadly, 100 people lost their lives in this fire.  Two days after the disaster, a memorial service was attended by thousands of mourners.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology, formed a team of fire specialists to establish several critical aspects of the case,  including, the likely cause of the failure of the building, the technical aspects of the emergency response, why the fire spread so rapidly, and what lead to such a significant amount of fatalities. 

The overall purpose of the investigation was to improve the safety and structural integrity of buildings in the United States for future generations and prevent future tragedies.

The investigation focused heavily on establishing initial conditions inside the venue, developing a precise timeline of events, and looking into materials involved, including testing and live reconstructions on a real scale. Investigators also studied the impact of having no sprinkler system in place, outlining how different the fire outcome could have been if sprinklers were installed.

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The National Fire Protection Association managed to piece together a clear site plan of the building which gave in disturbing detail, an account where victims bodies were found inside the club. In the resultant investigation report, of the fatalities, 95 deaths were attributed to the inability of the occupants to evacuate, before being overcome by the conditions they faced.

The investigation produced full-scale fire tests with the first test aimed to reconstruct the conditions faced by the victims inside the club at the time of the fire. A second fire test was carried out, the only difference being that a sprinkler system was fitted inside.

As the second test-fire developed, the sprinklers activated one by one, three activating in total. The sprinklers did not completely extinguish the fire, but they did help to control the fires spread and toxicity.  At one minute after ignition of the sprinkler test fire, smoke generation was significantly less than that of the non-sprinkler test, which at this stage was approaching flashover.

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The introduction of the sprinkler system provided a cooling, hazard reduced, scenario from the supposed actual event.

Following several months of study and analysis, several changes to NFPA codes were completed resulting in new requirements that would help to mitigate similar occurrences in the future.

Recommendations were put forward to try and guarantee the best way to prevent a similar tragedy from occurring in future.

  1. Adopt and enforce the already current Standards & Codes. If the guidelines outlined in the NFPA 1126 standard on the use of pyrotechnics in front of audiences was followed, there is a good chance that this incident would not have occurred, or at the very least, been reduced.
  2. Recommendations were put in place to change building codes to forbid the use of non-fire-retardant polyurethane foam for interior finishes.
  3. In areas of an emergency egress, as people tend to leave a building the way they enter, given that, it may be considered that increasing capacity of main entrances into nightclubs or similar should be investigated.
  4. As you would expect, recommendations were put in place to require sprinklers in all night clubs to prevent such disasters

Rhode Island had enacted a state building code in 2003 that required sprinklers in places of public assembly that could be occupied by more than 300 people. However, the clause excluded buildings like The Station nightclub that were constructed before that requirement.

Sadly, it is not questionable. If the Derderian brothers had installed sprinklers in the club, we might not have had to speak about this tragedy on my podcast.On December 4, 2003, a grand jury voted 200 indictments against both Michael and Jeff, and the Great White’s tour manager Daniel.

They were charged with two counts for every life lost under separate theories of the investigation. The first theory was criminal negligence manslaughter, which results when the accused ignores the bodily risk to others, and death results. 

The second, misdemeanour manslaughter, occurs from a lesser crime in which death results. In September 2006, Michael and Daniel, received four years imprisonment plus three years probation just as Daniel had.

Jeff was sentenced to three years of probation and 500 hours of community service. Michaels sentence was more significant than Jeffs because he had more prominent involvement in installing the polyurethane foam in the club. Lawsuits were also filed against several other defendants, including America Foam Corporation, and the Great White band.

All defendants settled. The total of all settlements was just over $176 million.

The families of the dead and survivors sought for years to have the site of the fire turned into a permanent memorial. The landowner formally donated the site to the Station Fire Memorial Foundation on September 28, 2012.

A memorial park was opened in May 2017 for the victims of the Station Nightclub victims. The 1-acre park, named Station Fire Memorial Park — includes a courtyard, gardens and granite monuments with the names and birthdays of every victim. As this fire has invoked memories of other tragic fires in populated occupancies, such as the Cocoanut Grove, and the Beverly Hills Supper Club. Many common factors can be found when analysing these tragedies, including combustible interior finish, overcrowding, and problems with egress.

For that reason, the memorial also depicts a timeline at the top, detailing important and significant fire tragedies that began six decades before, starting with the Cocoanut Grove disaster that claimed the lives of 492 people. 

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Dave Kane, the father of the youngest victim, Nicholas O’Neill, told WPRI-TV that the memorial should act as a reminder for elected officials to ensure people’s safety. How powerful!

“This was supposed to be a monument to remind state officials, local officials, elected officials what happens when you don’t do your job. People die,” Kane said. “As people drive by, they should be reminded to do the right thing and make sure the people that we hire, do the right thing.”

Family members and friends of the 100 cherished people who died as a direct result of the Station Fire founded the Station Fire Memorial Foundation in June 2003. Our purpose is to ensure that our loved ones would receive a proper memorial upon the sacred ground where their lives were so tragically cut short.

Perhaps a good way for us all to commemorate the 100 people who lost their lives in this tragedy is by gaining knowledge on fire safety.

Through this process, we can gain the confidence to speak up if we see breaches of fire regulations in our communities.

And, who knows, prevent the next fire disaster.

3 thoughts on “Station Nightclub Fire

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