On Feb. 20, 2003, the nation's fourth-deadliest nightclub fire occurred in the Town of West Warwick, RI, killing 100 people and injuring nearly 300. The emotional impact on the responding firefighters continues. Many will not discuss the incident; some still receive medical care. Legal...
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On Feb. 20, 2003, the nation's fourth-deadliest nightclub fire occurred in the Town of West Warwick, RI, killing 100 people and injuring nearly 300. The emotional impact on the responding firefighters continues. Many will not discuss the incident; some still receive medical care. Legal proceedings are ongoing. Current and former officials from several fire departments, including West Warwick's, declined to comment for this article. Their decisions and their rights to privacy are respected. In deference to them, names are not published.
This article is prepared from police reports, evidentiary material released by the Rhode Island State Attorney General (RISAG), communications with several mutual aid responders, Rhode Island Department of Health library reference material, published media articles (especially investigative reporting by the Providence Journal) and two major technical reports — The Station Club Fire After-Action Report, October 2004, by the Office of Domestic Preparedness of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the June 2005 Final Report of the National Construction Safety Team Investigation by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), U.S. Department of Commerce.
Educational and technical dissertations have been published, seminars given and books written. Most quote the NIST and DHS reports. Both reports reference the Providence Journal. Those compiling reports during civil and criminal litigation had limited access to evidence and interviews. The fire chief was the only West Warwick firefighter allowed to be interviewed for the NIST and DHS reports. The professional association representing West Warwick firefighters was offered the opportunity to comment for this article, but declined to respond. Subject matter including inspections, codes, civil and criminal litigation, opinions and recommendations of published reports, violations, blame, culpability and liability are not covered. The scene firefighters faced is addressed. How they mitigated it is a learning experience for the fire service.
(Note: Times are listed two ways to match video recordings and emergency dispatch records.)
A program from a 2005 hospital safety seminar about The Station fire noted that no amount of training could have prepared the fire department for what it encountered. Smoke and flames poured from the structure with occupants fleeing from doors and windows; most burned — some were on fire. Hundreds of people filled the parking lot and streets; half were injured, many seriously. Some were lying on the ground, inside vehicles, in pickup truck beds and seeking relief from burns in snow banks. And conditions were rapidly deteriorating.
Scanning side A at 11:13:12 P.M., the WPRI video recorded flames visible outside atrium windows reflected in the tour bus windows. At 11:13:21, Engine 4 is filmed parked on side A. At 2313 hours, Ladder 1 staging on Kulas Avenue requested the fire alarm (FA) office to expedite rescues for serious burn victims (on side B). FA confirmed five out-of-town rescues had already been requested. The initial attack was in direct support of rescue efforts. Engine 4, Engine 1 and Ladder 1 personnel advanced handlines to the front entryway where trapped occupants were being subjected to flame impingement. An off-duty career firefighter from a neighboring city assisted in stretching hose.
In 13 seconds, the video shows flames extending eight to 10 feet out the entryway as a line is stretched — through fleeing occupants, over injured persons on the ground and around parked cars and the tour bus. Nine seconds later, flames were out all front windows. One video shows a burning patron exiting a barroom window as firefighters approached. The Rhode Island State Police (RISP) report confirmed that when Engine 4 arrived, multiple victims were trapped on top of one another in the front door. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) report had fire through the roof within five minutes of ignition.