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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Battalion 1, arriving at 2314, established Command on Cowesett Road opposite the A/D corner, and reported the building was well involved and that multiple rescues would be needed. He directed FA to have Engine 3 lay-in, have Engine 1 come straight in, start calling back off-duty members and specifically requested 12 additional rescues. Rescue 1 cleared its run and responded at 2314. A Warwick Police report logged its first officer arriving at 2314 and being approached by severely burned survivors. A Cowesett Inn restaurant (CIR) employee informed him a victim was already inside the restaurant. The officer directed other victims toward the restaurant, which by default became the main triage center.
When one Warwick police sergeant, a trained fire investigator, approached the fire building, he stated it was fully involved; heavy black smoke and flames were coming from various points; screams could be heard from people trapped inside, and firefighters were pulling people from the fire and making suppression efforts. A 2315 radio transmission from Engine 4 confirmed occupants inside the building. Engine 3 was blocked by traffic and Engine 2 laid dual 300-foot supply lines from a hydrant on Cowesett Road, pulling in close to Engine 4. It supplied a feeder liner to Engine 4 and operated its deck gun on the front entrance. Engine 3 started triage at the CIR. Between 2316 and 2317, command advised FA triage was being set up and staging for out-of-town rescues would be at the CIR parking lot. At approximately 2318, command requested another task force (equal to a third alarm). It is not recorded which companies filled this assignment.
Patrons self-evacuated and were assisted out by police and surviving patrons prior to Engine 4's arrival. The Providence Journal identified by name 247 people who self-evacuated — 90 via the side-A front doors, 46 via the side-B bar door, 12 via the side-B kitchen door and 20 through the side-D stage door. Via side-A windows, 25 exited the sunroom and 54 exited the barroom. Accepting the 2007 figure of 462 occupants and knowing 96 bodies were recovered, it is probable more than 100 people were rescued by firefighters before the building became completely untenable. The figure concurs with the 2003 fire chief's estimate of 100 people rescued, mostly through side A.
Hopkins Hill Rescue 6, positioning at the A/D corner on Cowesett Road, was surrounded by burn victims seeking assistance. The congregating injured created another triage area by default. Victims were evaluated and transported from there until triage was consolidated at the CIR. While responding, Warwick Fire Department (WFD) Battalion 1 directed his FA to start commercial ambulances and send the WFD recruit bus. WFD Engine 5, Engine 9, Rescue 4 and Battalion 1 arrived almost simultaneously at 2319. WFD Battalion 1, parking at the CIR, was confronted by injured seeking help. Ambulatory injured already heading to the restaurant reaffirmed it the logical location for triage and all EMS was directed there.
When WFD Battalion 1 reported to the command post, the INTERCITY — a common radio frequency used to communicate between regional control centers (RCCs), agencies and apparatus — was becoming overloaded. Both departments' apparatus remained on their respective frequencies with both chiefs operating jointly at the command post. WFD Engine 5 and Rescue 4 were ordered into the CIR to assist with EMS; Rescue 4 reported 50 to 60 injured inside. WFD Rescue 1, monitoring radio traffic and knowing it was shift change at Kent County Hospital, had FA notify Kent of the situation; hence, the hospital was double staffed. WFD Engine 9 assisted moving scores of victims in the streets.
On Cowesett Road, WFD Tower Ladder 1 was approached by many injured and the officer led them to triage. WFD Engine 1, ordered to the B side, laid a 300-foot, large-diameter supply line and directed its deck gun toward the front-door area from an elevated position on Kulas Avenue. The crew observed fire already through the roof and also was confronted by injured victims seeking medical assistance. Several handlines were advanced to side B and on burning gasoline under multiple vehicles ignited at the A/B corner. Via the INTERCITY, West Warwick requested three rescues from Cranston FA, which dispatched Rescues 2, 3 and 4 at 2321. Cranston Engine 4 and Ladder 2 responded as fill-in companies. WFD Special Hazards assisted crews working on side A. After the tour bus was removed, the Warwick tower ladder backed into the A-side parking lot adjacent to the West Warwick engines. Cranston Engine 4 rerouted to the scene, laying a four-inch supply line for the tower's elevated master stream.