Few things evoke greater terror than fire, and for most people, being trapped inside a burning building is the ultimate nightmare scenario. It’s also an avoidable scenario which never has to occur, so long as appropriate safety measures are always in place. Tragically, it was a total disregard for basic, life-saving building features which led to the infamous Station Nightclub Fire in Rhode Island in 2003. Last February marked the 10th anniversary of this terrible event, which injured 230 people and claimed 100 lives, making it the fourth deadliest fire in United States history.
Flammable Acoustic Foam Leads to Deadly Rock Concert Fire
We anticipate a little danger at a rock concert: that’s part of the fun. We resign ourselves to the possibility we will encounter a few careless elbows to the gut, or take a knock to the teeth. That’s simply part and parcel of being in a rowdy audience at a live show. What we do not anticipate — and indeed, why would we? — is danger from the venue itself.
Fans of ’80s hair metal band Great White were certainly not expecting any harm when they came to the Station nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island on the evening of February 20, 2003. As the band prepared backstage, a total of 462 patrons crammed themselves into the 400-capacity club. They would have noticed the tight crowding around them, but couldn’t have known the club was strained 60 bodies past its safety threshold.
Great White eventually took the stage, but their set wouldn’t last. Mere seconds into their opening song, pyrotechnics consisting of “gerbs” — tubes which emit a controlled spray of sparks — sprayed sparks onto acoustic foam lining the stage.
Sound is harsh and unappealing in an empty room. It bounces off every surface and creates sharp, tinny echoes, so to create a richer, fuller sound, stages and recording studios use acoustic foam to pad surfaces and absorb stray sound waves. The top layer of the acoustic foam used at the Station show was made of extremely flammable urethane, coating a deeper layer of also flammable polyethylene. Gerbs are designed to spray sparks — but those sparks should never have come into contact with the acoustic foam. When they did, chaos erupted.
Blaze Consumes Station Nightclub within Minutes
The vicious speed with which this particular fire spread remains its most distinguishing and terrifying feature. Witnesses to the tragedy recalled the fire consuming approximately a foot of ground per second. Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable, but video footage captures the entire fire as it develops. (The now-famous footage was shot by news cameraman Brian Butler. Ironically, Butler was at the Station with the intent of doing a piece on nightclub safety, prompted by the deadly E2 Club stampede in Chicago only three days prior. In that instance, 21 club-goers were crushed to death.)
At around 25 seconds into the video, smoke begins to collect over the crowd. (You can clearly see the three gerbs spewing streams of sparks behind the lead singer as the song begins.) About 10 seconds later, Butler starts to retreat backwards through the crowd and away from the stage. You can see the audience beginning to notice that something is wrong as the room’s body language changes.
Around the 47 second mark, the band breaks off playing and screams begin to erupt in the audience. A male voice seems to be shouting, “Get out of here!” in the sea of commotion. At one minute in, the club’s shrill fire alarm starts to blare. By this point, the stage appears to be little more than a fiery yellow ball on the aging tape. At 1:30, lights cast onto the windows reveal a buildup of thick grey smoke. Panic begins to escalate as screams ring through the building with greater force and frequency than before. Butler is one of the lucky ones. At 1:37, he bursts into the clear cold of the winter night outside the club.
But he keeps filming.
Turning back the way he came, the corridor he escaped through now appears full of dark smoke. A knot of dazed people lean through a bottlenecked entrance, sucking in air. “Let’s go, let’s go!” one voice shouts. Around three minutes in, a man with a smoke-blackened face staggers past the camera. The smoke gushing through the seams around the windows is no longer grey; it is black. Everyone is screaming. The fire only started three minutes ago.
Manslaughter, Prison Time, and $175 Million in Settlements
The causes of this tragedy were not difficult for investigators to piece together. Highly flammable material was ignited by a spark, and the result was a fast-moving, amply-fueled fire. Crowd congestion in the tight, dark confines of the club led to bottle-necking, making the situation worse. Not only were there too many people in the building; the normal sprinkler system which would have delayed the fire was missing.
Before the Station was a nightclub, it was a restaurant — a small, old restaurant. Because of its age and diminutive size, the Station as a restaurant was not required to have sprinklers. But after it became a nightclub, installation was required by law. That requirement had simply never been met. The acoustic foam was the third and final broken link in the safety chain. Attorneys representing the club said the use of such foam had never been approved by management, with the band retorting that permission was in fact granted. Great White tour manager Daniel Biechele was tried in court for his role in the order and use of the foam, pleading guilty to all 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to serve at least four of 15 years in prison. Club owners and brothers Jeffrey and Michael Derderian pleaded no contest, known as nolo contendere. Jeffrey received a 10-year suspended sentence, with Michael receiving a sentence identical to Biechele’s.
Multiple civil lawsuits also emerged in the aftermath of the disaster. Defendants offering multimillion settlements include Home Depot, Anheuser-Busch, Sealed Air Corporation (makers of the foam), JBL Speakers, and WPRI-TV. In summer of 2008, grieving families received approximately $175 million in settlements.
If you or someone you love was hurt in a fire, you may have a strong personal injury claim. To schedule your private and completely free case evaluation, call the law offices of Pennsylvania firm The Reiff Law Firm at (215) 246-9000, or contact us online.