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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Most Rhode Island fire departments were dispatched by their own 24/7 staffed fire alarm (FA) office, each operating on a proprietary radio frequency. Coventry, an exception, had one FA office dispatch all town agencies. West Warwick had one dispatcher on duty. One statewide Enhanced 911 Control Center transferred calls for emergency assistance to the appropriate FA, which dispatched resources. Fire departments provided virtually all emergency medical service (EMS); consequently, coordination and cooperation between suppression and EMS personnel was a non-issue. Commercial ambulances, handling non-emergency transports and transfers, did not operate on fire frequencies.
Rhode Island participates in the Southern New England Fire Emergency Assistance Plan, coordinating inter-agency responses through four regional control centers (RCCs) located in and staffed by selected municipal FAs throughout the state. One common radio frequency known as the INTERCITY was used to communicate between RCCs, agencies and apparatus. Common practice was for a requesting agency to directly call another on the INTERCITY for assistance. If a mass-casualty incident (MCI) was declared, the RCCs were to manage interagency responses. A mutual aid box system provided West Warwick with up to a seven-alarm structural response, including station coverage, but it did not include mass movement of EMS resources. The INTERCITY operates under the auspices of the Rhode Island State Association of Fire Chiefs, which respectfully declined to comment on INTERCITY effectiveness during the incident.
The Station Nightclub
The Station, a 1940s-era single-story, irregularly shaped structure, was a 4,500-square-foot commercial occupancy of all-wood construction with a small basement facing north on a corner lot. Access into side A, facing Cowesett Road, was via double doors opening into an eight-foot-long hallway, through a single door into an eight-foot-long vestibule ending at a ticket booth. Access and egress from the vestibule was at right angles to the traffic flow — left into the bar room and right toward the dance floor. Exterior access to and egress from the front doors was also at right angles to the traffic flow. From the left, a handicap ramp led up to the entryway with stairs leading up from the right, both protected by a waist-high metal hand rail running parallel to side A directly opposite the door opening.
To the entryway's left, three windows led to the bar room. To the right, 11 atrium-style windows led to a sunroom (pool room) that opened into the dance floor. Game tables were pushed against the windows to increase the occupancy for that evening. Two single doors accessed side B facing Kulas Road; one into the bar and one into a kitchen. Side C had no means of access or egress. A single door accessed the side-D stage area. A local audible fire alarm system with heat detectors, strobe lights and manual pull stations was operational.
The building was set back 140 feet from Cowesett Road and 33 feet from Kulas Road, which steeply inclined upward from north to south. The front (side A) and half of the east side (side B) provided parking for numerous vehicles and was accessible only from Cowesett Road. Vehicles were parked close to the building on both sides. A 45-foot-long tour bus, parked parallel to the sunroom windows, was moved after the fire department arrived. Overhead wires, a pole-mounted transformer and service drop wires to the building were on side B. Sides C and D were not accessible to apparatus. Vegetation, accumulated snow and fencing restricted firefighter access to sides C and D. On the side-D interior wall, a raised wooden platform served as a stage. Walls and ceilings of the stage area and a recessed drummer's alcove were covered with egg crate-style 2½-inch-thick, non-fire-retardant polyurethane foam insulation commonly used as packing material. Four pyrotechnic devices known as "gerbs" located on the stage as part of the performing band's opening act were the source of ignition.
The building had a 404-person capacity for a standing-room-only venue (no tables or chairs). Early reports estimated actual occupancy between 420 and 440. During litigation, the RISAG established it at 458. A 2007 Providence Journal article identified, by name, age, city and state, 462 occupants, noting there were additional patrons who chose not to be identified. In a West Warwick Police Department witness statement, an employee stated 250 to 260 paying patrons were counted by a doorman's clicker prior to the fire. It is unknown whether the fire department was given a head count at any time during the incident.