20 Feb What Happened on This Day: Looking back at The Station Nightclub fire 20 years ago
In an ironic twist of fate, the fourth deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history was caught on videotape when tragedy ensued on February 20, 2003. A Rhode Island news crew was on-site at The Station nightclub in West Warwick, RI when it recorded the beginning of the fire. Jeffrey A. Derderian, a news reporter from WPRI-TV, and his cameraman Brian Butler were on site to do a report, here’s the irony, on nightclub safety. This report was newsworthy because a stampede at the E2 nightclub in Chicago three days prior had killed 21 people. In an even more curious turn of events, Derderian was part-owner of The Station.
‘80s glam metal band Great White, most well-known for the 1989 hit “Once Bitten and Twice Shy,” had just taken the stage at The Station for a Thursday night concert and was about two minutes into its performance when the terror began. Four large gerbs, which is a type of firework that produces a jet stream of sparks usually lasting between 15 and 60 seconds, were set off at the back of the stage by the band’s tour manager Daniel Biechele as part of its standard pyrotechnics display.
As the WPRI-TV video shows, it only took seconds for flames to leap along the foam lining that covered the nightclub’s ceiling and walls. A fire-retardant foam had been installed with the intention to dampen sound, however, instead, it turned out to be highly flammable. The video shows the fire alarm sounding at approximately 40 seconds from the time of ignition and the club’s fire horns and strobes clearly going off. The video documents the fire reaching flashover within one minute and smoke engulfing the club within two minutes.
The video also shows most of The Station’s patrons heading for the main or front exit as the fire begins because bouncers prevented occupants from exiting near the stage in an effort to protect the band, while unknowingly the fire grew on stage. “This forced the already overloaded building to have most of the occupants try to escape through the main entrance (exit) which did not have the capacity for this many people and had other design flaws. As an example, a pony wall caused queuing and tripping,” explained Mark Hopkins, PE, FSFPE of fire protection engineering firm TERPconsulting. “As a result, many people were trapped near the main entrance (exit) in a large pile mere feet from the exit door and safety.”
Because the main exit and its corridor became jammed as people rushed to escape the rapidly growing fire, occupants attempted to use the club’s windows as an alternative means of escape. However, time was not on their side as smoke resulting from the polyurethane foam catching fire had created a toxic mix of carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide gas which led to rapid loss of consciousness and brutal death by suffocation. The nightclub would prove a deathtrap with 100 people perishing including Great White guitarist Ty Longley. Another 230 were treated at the scene and transported to several area medical facilities at the time of the fire, and 132 fortunate concertgoers escaped without injury.
In a series of missteps, The Station nightclub, formerly a restaurant and tavern built in 1946, had been inspected twice in the months prior to the February concert. Neither inspection documented a violation noting the presence of flammable polyurethane foam which is against fire code. In addition to the code violation, the band had failed to get a license for the use of pyrotechnics from the State of Rhode Island nor permits from the local fire department.
The resulting carnage of The Station fire, which would become the second deadliest nightclub fire in New England behind the Cocoanut Grove fire in 1942 that resulted in 492 deaths, set off a national discussion on assembly occupancies. An investigative team that included the State Fire Marshal’s office, a statewide task force of law enforcement agencies, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) scrutinized what led to the fire.
One of the biggest issues investigators found was that older nightclubs in Rhode Island weren’t required to install sprinklers at the time of The Station fire. Although the nightclub was equipped with a fire alarm system consisting of manual fire alarm boxes, heat detectors, and horn/strobe notification units it was not protected by automatic sprinklers.
“As a result of The Station fire, building and fire codes and standards made it mandatory for existing nightclub-type occupancies such as bars, dance halls, discotheques, nightclubs, and assembly occupancies with festival seating to install sprinkler systems. Tentative Interim Amendments (TIAs) were incorporated in the 2006 edition of NFPA 101— Life Safety Code that required automatic fire sprinklers in all new and existing nightclubs that accommodate more than 100 occupants,” said Hopkins, who is a former NFPA 101 committee member.
When comparing The Station incident with other historic fires in assembly occupancies, NFPA found that one of the common factors among them was the presence of combustible interior finish and furnishings. “This also necessitated changes to the testing and listing standards for fire retardant materials used in public spaces as outlined in the 2006 edition of NFPA 101,” explained Hopkins. “Other fire and safety code changes were also implemented including increased enforcement of capacity limits for public venues and enhanced training and certification requirements for firefighters, building inspectors, and safety officials.
“However, one of the most significant differences between The Station nightclub fire and past nightclub fires was the use of pyrotechnics,” said Hopkins. “As a result of the fire Rhode Island adopted NFPA 1126 — Use of Pyrotechnics Before a Proximate Audience (2003 edition), which restricts using pyrotechnics indoors to only properly protected facilities.”
Surviving band members were never charged. The band’s manager Biechele pleaded guilty in 2006 to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter and was paroled after serving less than half of his four-year prison sentence. Club owners Jeffrey and Michael Derderian pleaded no contest to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter in 2006. Jeffrey received community service and probation while Michael spent less than three years behind bars.
Last year on the 19th anniversary of the fire, Reelz released a documentary, “America’s Deadliest Rock Concert: The Guest List,” which shared the story of the tragedy from the perspectives of survivors, first responders, family members, and friends of the victims. Members of Great White were also interviewed in the documentary. Lead singer Jack Russell recalls meeting Great White fans in the West Warwick area the afternoon before the concert and adding their names to a guest list for the February 20th show. Weeks after the fire a charred paper was recovered from the Station nightclub ashes that showed rows of handwritten names and above them were the words ‘Guest List.’ To watch the documentary tonight or for viewings scheduled later this week, visit The Guest List – REELZ.