Bethesda, Md. — Shortly after 11 p.m., on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2003, a fire at The Station Nightclub in West Warwick, R.I., left 100 dead and many more injured. The fire, which occurred five years ago, was one of the deadliest nightclub fires in the history of the U.S.
“Inadequate fire protection features were a major contributing factor to the significant number of deaths and injuries,” said Chris Jelenewicz, engineering program manager with the Bethesda, Md.-based Society of Fire Protection Engineers. “Additionally, exiting from the nightclub was hampered by overcrowding at the building's main entrance.”
The Station Nightclub was a one-story, wood-frame building that regularly hosted live band performances. The fire started on-stage while a rock band was playing.
Fire investigators determined the fire started when pyrotechnics used during the band's performance ignited polyurethane foam that lined parts of the nightclub's walls and ceilings. After ignition, the fire spread quickly along the ceiling and throughout the building. Within seconds, deadly thick black smoke filled the nightclub, and flames were observed breaking through the roof in less than five minutes after the fire started.
More than 440 people occupied the building at the time of the fire. Shortly after the start of the fire, the main front doorway became clogged with occupants trying to exit the building.
In addition, the building was not equipped with an automatic fire sprinkler system. An investigation following the blaze by the National Institute for Standards and Technology revealed that this tragedy would have been averted if a fire sprinkler system was installed in the building at the time of the fire.
This combination of a fast-moving fire that was caused by the polyurethane insulation coupled with the inability of the exits to handle the occupants were the major contributors to the 100 fire deaths. Many of the dead had either been burned to death or died of smoke inhalation, though some were trampled in the rush to escape.
“Because the fire and smoke spread so quickly through the building and the building was not equipped with a fire suppression system, the building occupants just didn't have enough time to get out alive,” said Jelenewicz.
As a result of this fire, many building requirements were enhanced to make nightclubs safer from fire. Some of these requirements included provisions for automatic fire sprinklers in new and existing nightclubs and a requirement to have crowd managers present to assist with emergency building evacuations.
Cutting edge study tools
The Station Nightclub fire investigation was performed using cutting-edge engineering tools. After the station nightclub fire, fire protection engineers used computer fire models along with full-scale fire tests to analyze how the fire spread through the building. Additionally, the analysis predicted the impact of the fire if fire sprinklers were installed in the building.
“The Station Nightclub Fire reminds us of the threat that is posed by fire and the importance of designing buildings that that keep people safe from fire,” said Jelenewicz.
Organized in 1950, the Society of Fire Protection Engineers is the professional society for engineers involved in the field of fire protection engineering. The purposes of SFPE are to advance the science and practice of fire protection engineering, maintain a high ethical standing among its members and foster fire protection engineering education. SFPE's worldwide members include engineers in private practice, in industry and in local, regional and national government. Chapters are located in Canada, China, France, Italy, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Spain, Sweden and the United States.
Additional information is available at www.sfpe.org.