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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Television station WPRI was inside shooting video for a future fire safety documentary. This professional video shows the club's interior, ignition, crowd reaction and fire progression. Two amateur videos exist; one was released in 2006 by the RISAG. The NIST report correlated the WPRI video with fire alarm and police time clocks and amateur videos producing a common timeline. Times showing seconds are based on that timeline. Times manually entered by police and fire dispatchers and calculated from radio transmission and telephone recordings are in military format. Times are P.M.
The First 60 Seconds
The WPRI video shows flames on the left rear stage wall at 11:08:00, eight seconds after the pyrotechnics started. At 11:08:09, flames are visible on the rear right wall. The video operator began to evacuate 18 seconds after ignition, exiting the front door within 50 seconds. Twenty-five seconds after ignition, flames touched the ceiling on both sides of the stage. In five seconds, the band stopped playing and patrons began self-evacuating. At 11:08:36, the 911 center started receiving cell phone calls reporting the fire. Three seconds later, fire alarm strobes began flashing and the fire alarm began sounding.
Two West Warwick police officers were inside the club. One, at the ticket booth, radioed the police dispatcher at 2307 hours to start the fire department. The other, inside the front hallway facing away from the stage, was physically pushed outside by fleeing patrons. The first officer, temporarily pinned inside the vestibule, was also forcibly ejected outside by the crowd. A Warwick Police Department report stated at 2308 hours that West Warwick Police requested police assistance, reporting the nightclub on fire with over 200 people trapped inside or injured. Smoke banked down in the front hallway 66 seconds after ignition. Thirty seconds later, occupants are wedged in the front doorway with smoke over their heads. Police heard patrons screaming and kicking at the bar room and sunroom windows. Trapped occupants began self-evacuating and were being assisted through broken windows by police and escaped patrons.
At 11:09:13, the first calls were recorded by West Warwick's FA. Outside, from the A/D corner, the operator filmed side D at 11:09:26 showing smoke from the stage door with visible flames inside. Four seconds later, side A shows thick, black smoke and occupants exiting sunroom windows with smoke at floor level. Rescue 1 was on an unrelated EMS call. At 2310 hours, FA dispatched Engines 4, 1, 2 and 3; Ladder 1 and Battalion 1 with all remaining on-duty West Warwick firefighters. Twelve seconds after dispatch, the video shows heavy, black smoke pushing out above trapped occupants in the front doorway. A Rhode Island State Police (RISP) report stated after the 2310 dispatch, FA notified Battalion 1 that police on scene were reporting people trapped, they were requesting multiple rescues and FA had already requested three out-of-town rescues (from Coventry). Out-of-town is local terminology denoting a mutual aid unit. The INTERCITY recorded Hopkins Hill Rescue 6 from Coventry responding at 2312.
(A March 2005 NIST press briefing produced two findings: A computer simulation indicated conditions around the dance floor and sunroom would have led to severe incapacitation or death 90 seconds after ignition. Measurements from a fire test of a reconstructed portion of the platform and dance floor physically produced, also within 90 seconds, conditions exceeding survivability limits.)
The Station had been burning for about two minutes and several hundred people were still inside.
The Second 60 Seconds
Prior to fire department arrival, escaping patrons seeking medical help and relief from temperatures in the 20s migrated toward the Cowesett Inn restaurant (CIR) located 200 feet diagonally northeast across Cowesett Road. By 2312 hours, five West Warwick police officers were on location. At 11:12:13, the video shows flames at the side D door with smoke almost at floor level. Responding apparatus sirens are recorded at 11:12:30. At 11:12:56, flames burned through the exterior side-C wall at roof level. Engine 4, on location at 2313 hours, reported heavy fire showing. Enroute, Battalion 1 requested a task force (two engines, one ladder, one rescue and a chief officer, equal to a second alarm) from Warwick. Warwick's FA, monitoring West Warwick's frequency (having themselves received 911 calls for the incident plus an INTERCITY request from West Warwick for two rescues) upgraded the assignment to Engines 5, 9 and 1; Ladder 1; Special Hazards, Rescues 4 and 1; and Battalion 1 at 2314 hours.