Ep 64 Station Nightclub Fire
Failurology is turning 2! We’re recapping all of the cool things we’ve gotten up to over the last year!
This week's engineering failure is the Station Nightclub (13:25). There were many contributing factors (20:45) that led to the tragic fire. In the aftermath, the band manager and building owners pled guilty to their part in the fire (29:50) and regulators made significant and necessary changes to rules around upgrading life safety systems in existing buildings (35:00).
Station Nightclub Fire
Hi and welcome to Failurology; a podcast about engineering failures. I’m your host, Nicole
And I’m Brian. And we’re both from Calgary, AB.
Our podcast is 2 years old. Well it was 2 years old last episode, but the first electric plane was too interesting to pass up as a news article relevant to the Boeing 737 Max.
Now on to this week’s engineering failure; the Station Nightclub Fire.
February 20, 2003 at 11:07pm eastern time in West Warwick Rhode Island.
The cause was pyrotechnics set off by a tour manager for that evening’s headlining band, Great White. The pyrotechnics ignited flammable acoustic foam in the walls and ceilings around the stage.
It took a minute, only 1 minute, to reach flashover. Which is the almost simultaneous ignition of exposed combustibles in the vicinity of the fire.
Within 2 minutes, thick black smoke engulfed the entire club.
Between the smoke, unfamiliarity with the building, and blocked exits, getting out of the building was a challenge. It didn’t help that the fans thought the fire was part of the show, until the band stopped playing and the lead singer said over the mic “wow… that’s not good”. The fire resulted in 100 deaths, and there were 230 injured.
The fire is the fourth deadliest at a US nightclub and the second deadliest in New England after the 1942 Cocoanut Grove fire that killed 492. We covered the Cocoanut Grove fire in mini failure episode 21 on our patreon feed. The cocoanut grove fire was quite old and information was a bit harder to find. And while it did drive some change in fire protection and life safety, it doesn’t seem to have the same impact that the station nightclub fire had. Any that might just be my perception since this fire was newer. But I thought that the station nightclub was more relevant to current buildings and so that’s why we decided to cover it as a regular episode, instead of a mini failure.
Also, I didn’t know this until I started researching the station nightclub fire, which is one of my favorite parts of these research rabbit holes, the E2 nightclub stampede in Chicago happened 3 days before after a security guard used pepper spray to break up a fight, ensuing panic resulting in 21 deaths and 50 injuries. Because of that stampede, there was a news crew at the station nightclub the night of the fire, reporting on safety, which is ironic. But they caught the entire fire on camera, and you can see how fast it spread.
Pepper spray is considered a weapon in Canada and is therefore illegal but it’s legal in Illinois. Kinder Surprise is dangerous, but let's all carry pepper spray. I will never understand the Kinder Surprise thing, make it make sense. Americans if you don’t know what Kinder Surprise is, it's a hollow chocolate egg with a little capsule inside that has a toy. They are delicious and fun and everyone should be able to experience them. They are banned because the US Food Drug and Cosmetics Act banned all candy with non-nutritive objects. Which happened in 1938 and still applied to Kinder Eggs when they became a thing in the 1970’s. The FDA also claimed they could be a choking hazard for kids. In 2011, about 60,000 kinder eggs were confiscated at the US/Canada border.
When Great White’s 1991 hit single “Desert Moon” started to open their set, their manager set off four (what are called) gerbs. They are cylindrical devices that set off a spray or shower of sparks. Two were pointed at 45 degree angles towards the upper corners of the front of the stage, and two were pointed straight up.
These gerbs set off some acoustic foam, which we’ll talk about in a second. The fire was actually caught on video and you can see the sparks and how quickly the fire and smoke start. It’s somewhat hard to tell from the video, but it looks like sparks are hitting the acoustic foam. The stage and building itself is pretty small. Even though there were 462 people in attendance, the club’s licensed capacity was 404, so not very big. Way too small to have four spark showers. It’s really not a surprise at all that the sparks caught the building on fire, acoustic foam or not. The building itself was wooden frame and old, built in 1946. And despite the club undergoing many renovations over the years, it had remained grandfathered into an exception for laws requiring ceiling sprinklers. Grandfathering means to allow an existing operation to continue legally when a new operation would be illegal. In other words, since the building was old and not undergoing extensive renovations, it was allowed to remain under the codes in place when it was built.
To me, it was only a matter of time before something like this happened. But the sparks are really just the tip of the iceberg here.
The second biggest contributing factor was the acoustic foam that surrounded the stage. It was built in two layers, the outer layer being a highly flammable urethane foam, with a harder to ignite, but high heat producing once ignited polyethylene foam underneath. It was the outer layer that caught fire first and spread quickly, lighting the second layer, which produced a very toxic opaque, dark smoke that released carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide gas. It's said that inhaling this smoke 2-3 times is enough to knock someone unconscious and eventually die.
Next contributing factor were the exits. As mentioned, the smoke came on quickly and visibility was limited; causing most people to head back the way they came in, which was the front door. The main entrance was a narrow corridor with an intermediate door and small foyer to prevent people from entering without tickets. And we’ve seen this before; people getting in for free is of more concern to owners and managers than people’s ability to exit in an emergency. Several survivors had injuries of burns, smoke inhalation, thermal trauma, or crushing trying to escape. If you’ve ever been at the front of a standing room concert and everyone starts pushing when the band comes on, and you get pushed up against the rail, not a great feeling. This would be easily 1000 times worse. On top of that, several survivors said that the bouncer at the exit next to the stage wouldn’t let people escape because it was “for the band only” which is a really big jerk move that he will have to live with for the rest of his life.
And the last contributing factor we want to talk about is the building itself. The building contributed 95% of the fuel load for the fire. Even though the panels started it, they were less than 5% of the fuel. As we mentioned it was built in 1946, made of wood, and had been able to skirt important life safety upgrades like installing sprinklers. It only took 5 minutes for the entire building to be engulfed in flames. 5 minutes.
The site of the fire was cleared, and a makeshift memorial took place at the site. The land was donated to the Station Fire Memorial Foundation in 2016 and the memorial dedication ceremony took place on May 21, 2017.
We're going to talk about the consequences for the band manager and club owner because we’re all curious what happened to them, but then we’re going to get into the code changes that happened as a result of this fire.
So big shocker here, there was a disagreement over whether or not the band had permission to use pyrotechnics. I want to say that even if they did not have permission, the owner should have seen them setting up the gerbs, but after some online research, they can be fairly small, so it's possible they weren't noticed ahead of time. It's also possible that everyone overlooked the flammability of the acoustic panels and they had permission for the sparks. Who knows?!? We definitely don’t.
The band manager pleaded guilty, against his lawyer’s advice, to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter on February 7, 2006. He said he wanted to “bring peace, I want this to be over”. He was sentenced to four years in prison and three years probation. He ended up being released early in March 2008, with parole ending in March 2011. Many of the families forgave him and supported his parole, noting that he stood up, admitted responsibility, made no attempt to mitigate guilt and apologized to the families, even writing handwritten letters to the families of each of the 100 victimes.
The nightclub was owned by two brothers. 6 months after the band manager pleaded guilty, the owners changed their pleas from “not guilty” to “no contest” avoiding a trial. One was sentenced to four years in prison and three years probation, same as the band manager, and the other was sentenced to 500 hours of community service. The different sentences were in relation to their role in purchasing and installing the flammable foam. The brother who received prison time was released on good behavior in June 2009.
As of september 2009, $115 million USD in settlements were paid to the victims and their families. These included:
$1 million from the band’s insurance plan
$813,000 from the club owner’s insurance plan
Rhode Island state paid $10 million
The acoustic foam manufacturer paid $25 million
The company that sold the insulation paid $6.3 million
The installers paid $5 million
The manufacturer of the speakers, which allegedly used flammable foam inside, paid $815,000
A beer distributor offered $21 million; which I’m not sure if that is related to some fault or just in support of the victims
And lastly, the news crew on site paid $30 million because it was claimed their video journalist was obstructing the exit.
This fire was really tragic, and preventable, like we talk about almost every episode. And also like we’ve talked about many times before, humans are much more reactive than proactive, and this fire was exactly the kick in the butt that regulators needed to crack down on life safety in assembly occupancies.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) conducted an investigation under the authority of the National Construction Safety Team Act, using fire dynamics simulator software and a mockup of the fire. They concluded that a sprinkler system would have held the fire at bay for long enough to get everyone out of the building safely. The building, again constructed in 1946, was under 4,500 sq ft (417 sq m) and was believed to be grandfathered from upgrade requirements. And this is fairly common. A building has to go under an extensive enough renovation to trigger all aspects of the building to be upgraded to current codes. And this is usually something that owners weigh when planning renovations. The thing is, this building went under a change of use, which voided the grandfathering, but the fire inspectors missed this. So on the night of the fire, the building was legally required to have sprinklers, but it was never enforced.
After the fire, the grandfathering clause, which allowed buildings constructed before 1976 to forego ceiling sprinklers, was lifted. This meant that all public facilities over a certain capacity were forced to upgrade and install a sprinkler system. Specifically, group A-2 occupancies – which are assemblies intended for food and or drink consumption including things like banquet halls, casinos, nightclubs, restaurants, cafeterias, etc –now had to install sprinklers if the capacity was over 100. That threshold for sprinklers used to be 300. After learning about the station nightclub fire, there was little opposition to this change to the code that now requires sprinklers for assemblies of over 100 people.
Regulations for pyrotechnic displays were also tightened and strictly enforced.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) also released a two volume report, including recommendations restricting flammable foam plastic materials, prohibiting pyrotechnic displays in enclosed nightclubs without sprinklers, giving local fire marshals more power to enforce codes and standards, and making sprinkler requirements stronger by increasing the factor of safety on the time for occupants to egress. Life safety standards are often referred to in minutes or hours of time that material or assembly can hold back a fire to allow occupants to safely exit. So when someone talks about a 1 hr wall, they are referring to a wall that can resist fire exposure for one hour. One hour is the most common, in my experience, the most I have seen is a four hour wall, which is usually to separate different occupancy types. To throw a wrench in things, there is also a zero hour wall, which is a smoke separation that prevents smoke from transferring from one space to another.
We have included a link to the report in the sources on the webpage for this episode at failurology.ca.
So there you have it, the station nightclub fire. A completely preventable and devastating fire changed the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of people in under 2 minutes. We’ve seen this before, and unfortunately, we will probably see it again. How many of these tragic fires will there be before we get our ducks in a row and strengthen life safety systems in existing buildings.
For photos, sources and an episode summary from this week’s episode head to Failurology.ca. If you’re enjoying what you’re hearing, please rate, review and subscribe to Failurology, so more people can find us. If you want to chat with us, our Twitter handle is @failurology, you can email us firstname.lastname@example.org, you can connect with us on Linked In or you can message us on our Patreon page. Check out the show notes for links to all of these. Thanks, everyone for listening. And tune in to the next episode where we’re going to talk about the time that the regulatory body for Quebec engineers had its power of self-regulation revoked. We’ll also talk about some of the history of engineering as a profession in Canada, and specifically in Alberta. Bye everyone, talk soon!