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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Metal handrail and parked vehicles impede recovery efforts at the front entryway. A window to the bar room is at left.
Although only four engines and a tower ladder were required for extinguishment, the equivalent of a four-alarm structural assignment (including more than six dozen fire department-staffed rescue ambulances) was utilized in rescuing more than 100 people as well as triaging, treating and transporting more than 200 – all within 90 minutes.
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.
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.
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.
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WILLIAM F. ADAMS is a past chief of the East Rochester, NY, Fire Department and a former fire apparatus sales representative. He has 40 years' experience in the volunteer fire service.