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. The incident remains the subject of intense media coverage. One Internet search produced 15 million hits for The Station Nightclub Fire, compared to 362,000 for the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire; 76,000 for the Cocoanut Grove fire and 3,000 for the Rhythm Night Club fire (see page 96).
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.
The 2003 career-staffed West Warwick Fire Department operated four engines, one ladder, one special hazards and two rescues from four stations. (Special hazards is a heavy rescue or squad-type support unit. Rescues are rescue-ambulances.) Ladder 1 and Special Hazards were cross staffed, as were Engine 2 and Rescue 2; cross staffing means only one responds on an assignment. Minimum staffing was a duty chief with 12 firefighters and officers. The town's eight square miles and 30,000 residents are bordered by the cities of Cranston on the north and Warwick on the east, both with career departments. On the west, the Town of Coventry was protected by seven independent fire departments and districts; some with on-duty career staff. A small section of the southern border is adjacent to the town of East Greenwich.
The Station nightclub was on Cowesett Road, a half-mile from the Warwick city line and 1,700 feet from the quarters of Engine 4, Ladder 1 and Special Hazards. Battalion 1 (the duty chief), Engine 1 and Rescue 1 were quartered within two miles. Engine 2 and 2 were three miles away. Engine 3 was within 3½ miles. Three Warwick stations responding suppression units on the initial mutual aid request had travel distances of two, three and 3½ miles. Four Coventry stations were within four miles. Resources were close, mostly career staffed and, as agencies routinely monitor neighboring radio traffic, responses were immediate. Kent County Hospital was within three miles.