Station Nightclub fire: Lessons, code changes follow tragedy
The 2003 nightclub fire in Rhode Island was the fourth deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history
It took less than 5 minutes for fire to engulf The Station nightclub, packed with concertgoers, on Feb. 20, 2003. One hundred individuals died in the West Warwick, R.I., fire, making it the fourth deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history.
Although many factors were involved in the loss of so many lives that day, the installation of a properly functioning sprinkler system would have positively impacted the outcome. The building was not protected with a sprinkler system, partly due to a grandfathered clause relating to the adopted codes at the time of construction or other triggers such as major alterations or change in occupancy.
The aftermath of this tragedy forever changed the way we design, inspect and enjoy these venues.
A changing venue
In 1946, brothers Casey and Henry Lada opened a gin mill at 211 Cowesett Ave. in West Warwick, R.I., called The Wheel. Over the years, the building changed ownership multiple times and experienced numerous remodels and renovations.
In 1972, a fire caused the building to close its doors until 1974, when it reopened as a restaurant. Ownership changed in 1985, and the building became a pub. Records indicate that in 1991, the building was turned into a nightclub.
In 2000, almost 54 years after the original construction, brothers Michael and Jeffrey Derderian purchased the property. They renamed the building The Station and maintained its use as a nightclub, with live music and events as the main attraction.
On the evening of Feb. 20, 2003, a crowd estimated at 440-458 occupants packed into the 4,484-square-foot, single-story wood-framed building for that night’s show.
At approximately 11:07 p.m., the club’s lights dimmed, and the headlining band, Great White, stepped out onto the stage. According to the incident National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) report, a set of multi-colored lights were activated, and four pyrotechnic devices called gerbs, which project sparks vertically, were ignited to begin the show.
The hot sparks from the pyrotechnics contacted the wall and ceiling immediately adjacent to the drummer's alcove. Flames were visible on the wall's surface within nine seconds after discharge. Within 19 seconds, the fire was progressing toward the ceiling, and smoke began to fill the building. After approximately 30 seconds, the band stopped playing after noticing flames rolling across the ceiling. The fire alarm activated at around 41 seconds, sounding and flashing strobes. By this time, the club’s occupants had begun moving toward the exits. It's estimated that between 56 and 66% of the occupants attempted to leave the same way they had entered the building – through the main entrance.
A toxic smoke layer filled the space as the occupants attempted to exit. The main exit quickly became unusable as people fell and tried to climb over one another to escape, creating an unpassable wedge.
Less than two minutes after the first flames appeared, heavy black smoke could be seen pumping from the main entrance over the jammed doorway. According to the NIST analysis of the fire, untenable conditions were reached on the dance floor in less than 90 seconds.
The first engine arrived on the scene around 5½ minutes after the fire started and was positioned in front of the building. The crew immediately stretched a 1¾-inch hoseline while reporting heavy smoke and flames pouring from multiple locations.
The first-arriving engine crew found clubgoers jumping from the windows and piled on top of one another at the main door, unable to exit. Hundreds of “walking wounded” were scattered throughout the scene, many with serious injuries. The fire department implemented its mass casualty incident (MCI) plan within 10 minutes of arriving and activated its mutual-aid task force response.
The technical investigation report acknowledged that, “given the hazardous mix of materials in The Station and the lack of installed sprinklers, nothing that the fire department could have done that night would have saved the building from the fast-growing fire."
In total, 100 lives were lost, more than 230 people were injured, and countless lives within the community were impacted.
After a nine-month grand jury investigation, the band manager and the owners of the club were each indicted on 100 counts of criminal negligence and 100 counts of misdemeanor manslaughter.
The band manager, Daniel Biechele, who lit the pyrotechnics, pleaded guilty to 100 counts and was sentenced to 15 years in prison, with four years to serve and 11 years suspended, plus three years of probation. After serving 12 months of his sentence, Biechele was released from prison in 2008.
The Station owners, brothers Michael and Jeffrey Derderian, changed their original plea of not guilty to no contest, effectively avoiding a jury trial. Michael Derderian served 2 years and 9 months in prison, while his brother Jeffery received 3 years of probation with 500 hours of community service.
The civil suits that followed resulted in a recovery of $176 million for the victims and families affected by the fire.
Learning from tragedy
Every tragedy has something to teach us and paves the way for numerous technical investigations, recommendations and changes to model codes.
Examples of similar tragedies:
- Cocoanut Grove nightclub, Boston; Nov. 28, 1942; Deaths: 492
- Rhythm Club dance hall, Natchez, Mississippi; April 23, 1940; Deaths: 207
- Beverly Hills Supper Club, Southgate, Kentucky; May 28, 1977; Deaths: 165
- Happy Land Social Club, Bronx, New York; March 25, 1990; Deaths: 87
We've learned from these fires that the appropriate fire protection systems, building features, construction, enforcement and education improve safety for us all.
The Station fire was ignited by the illegal use of pyrotechnics and worsened by the available fuel load, building layout, construction and occupant load during the event. We also understand that lives would have been saved if the building had been protected by an automatic fire sprinkler system. In the aftermath, numerous agencies and organizations attempted to understand what could have been done to avoid this event and, more importantly, determine how we could prevent a similar tragedy.
Within weeks of the fire, the NFPA called an emergency meeting to address assembly occupancy concerns. The meeting resulted in multiple tentative interim amendments (TIAs), passed on July 26, 2003:
- NFPA 101 - New & Existing: Restrict festival if occupant load (OL) is greater than 250 unless a life safety (LS) evaluation is conducted
- NFPA 101 - New & Existing: Crowd manager required for all occupancies of assembly
- NFPA 101 - Sprinkler (existing) nightclub-type facilities with OL greater than 100
- NFPA 101 - Sprinkler (new) nightclub-type facilities and festival seating venues
- NFPA 101 - Existing: Require means of egress inspections and record-keeping
- NFPA 5000 - New: Restrict festival seating if OL is greater than 250 unless a LS evaluation is conducted
- NFPA 5000 - New: Sprinkler (new) nightclub-type facilities and festival seating venues
Further, on Feb. 27, 2003, under the authority of the National Construction Safety Team (NCST) Act, NIST began a technical investigation into the causes that led to this tragedy. The report was completed in June 2005 and listed multiple recommendations related to the following issues:
Code Adoption and Enforcement
- Adopt building and fire codes, implement aggressive and adequate fire inspections and enforcement, and maintain appropriately qualified and trained staffing levels to perform these duties.
- Require NFPA 13 sprinkler systems installed in all nightclubs, regardless of size, including existing with an occupant load >100.
- Expressly forbid non-fire retarded flexible polyurethane foam and other materials that ignite as easily and propagate flames for all new and existing nightclubs.
- Modify NFPA 286 to provide more explicit guidance for when large-scale tests are required.
- Modify ASTM E-84, NFPA 255 and NFPA 286 to ensure that product classification and the pass/fail criteria for flame spread tests and large-scale tests use the best measurement and prediction practices available.
- Strengthen NFPA 1126 (Use of Pyrotechnics before a Proximate Audience) to ban indoor use of pyrotechnics in new and existing nightclubs not equipped with an NFPA 13-compliant automatic sprinkler system, include minimum occupancy and/or area for a nightclub, and require the minimum clearances.
- Establish provisions for determining occupancy limits of all new and existing nightclubs, and aggressively enforce adopted provisions.
- Perform a study of a fully occupied nightclub to determine the accessibility of fire extinguishers.
- State and local authorities adopt and adhere to existing model standards on communications, mutual aid, command structure and staffing
- Conduct research to better understand human behavior in emergency situations and to predict the impact of building design on safe egress in fires and other emergencies.
- Conduct research to understand fire spread and suppression.
- Analysis of computer-aided decision tools for determining the costs and benefits of alternative code changes and fire safety technologies.
- develop computer models to assist communities in allocating resources.
Today's model codes are too often a painful list of lessons learned. Although many necessary updates and changes have resulted from the findings and recommendations in the wake of The Station fire, we continue to find code-related and enforcement concerns within similar reports. Prevention-related activities are often underutilized or unrealized assets in the fire service, and they continue to be underfunded and understaffed in most fire departments. Consider these questions:
- Does your department have a "prevention first" mindset?
- Are prevention efforts supported by leadership?
- How are outreach practices determined and prioritized?
- Are those responsible for enforcement qualified to national standards?
- What are the concerns and hazards in your community?
A shared responsibility
"Fire is Everyone’s Fight," and we all share the responsibility for fire safety in our communities. The most productive approach to avoiding similar disasters is to work together. We must feel comfortable having difficult conversations and understand why regulations and codes exist. Prevention activities should be supported, and inspectors held to a high standard. Those responsible for enforcing the rules and regulations should feel confident in educating customers and requiring compliance with adopted codes. Success is found in the comprehensive collaboration among all administrative agencies, communities and business partners.
The changes made after The Station fire will only make a difference if they are adopted and effectively enforced and our communities are educated. Working cooperatively in this effort is how we honor those lost and the lives forever changed by this disaster.