Learning from The Station Nightclub Fire

On Feb. 20, 2003, 100 people died when malfunctioning pyrotechnics set The Station nightclub on fire in Warwick, R.I.
In this Feb. 20, 2003 aerial file photo, authorities continue their work at The Station nightclub where more than 100 people died in a late night fire, in West Warwick, R.I. A fire that swept through a crowded nightclub in southern Brazil early Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013, and killed more than 230 people appears to be the deadliest in more a decade. Witnesses said a flare or firework lit by band members may have started the blaze. Similar circumstances led to the the 2003 West Warwick, R.I., fire, where pyrotechnics used as a stage prop by the 1980s rock band Great White set ablaze cheap soundproofing foam on the walls and ceiling of the music venue.

Today marks the 18-year anniversary of The Station nightclub fire, which killed 100 people. The fire occurred inside the Warwick, R.I., nightclub during a concert by the band Great White. Within minutes, flames engulfed the nightclub. Billowing smoke hindered escape, which was further complicated by the fact that most of the concert-goers tried to exit from just one single-door exit, although three exits existed. In the ensuing panic, many people were killed and injured in a “crowd crush” just inside the main doors.  

Imagining such a scene is horrific and overwhelming; equally overwhelming is the amount of educational material available to firefighters seeking to understand more about this fire. You can get lost in the reports and the lessons learned. But on this 16-year anniversary, perhaps a good way to commemorate the 100 people who lost their lives in this tragedy is by picking at least one area to study and refresh your knowledge, and through this process, to better prepare yourself and your department to respond to a nightclub fire. Or better yet, to prevent one.

NIST Technical Report
Although there are countless resources available about The Station nightclub fire, the best place to start may be the NIST Technical Report. There’s too much information in this report to digest in one sitting, but it provides the ability for firefighters to select one or more topics to delve into. Some possibilities:

The initial command was established by the West Warwick Fire Department on-duty chief, acting Battalion 1; when the chief of department arrived, he assumed command. The NIST report notes:

“The fire ground scene was chaotic. The fire was rapidly enveloping the structure with a large collection of victims trapped at the main entrance and an unknown number still likely to be in the building. Dozens of victims with obvious injuries were scattered across the operational area, including the parking lot and along the street looking east toward the Inn … The concurrent and emerging operational objectives of rescuing victims, providing mass casualty care/transport and mounting an attack to extinguish the fire were apparent to the IC who immediately requested additional assistance.”

Questions to consider:

  • What is your department’s procedure for establishing command?
  • Where do you position the command post and how would an incident of this nature affect your decision-making?
  • When calling for additional resources, do you have an alarm structure (e.g., “Give me a third alarm”)? Do you have the ability to call for specific resources in cases of mass-casualty events?
  • Is your command structure capable of managing hundreds of mutual-aid resources that may be required on a large incident?

Fire Attack
One of the stark lessons of The Station nightclub fire is that from a fire-attack perspective, it wasn’t that complicated. Responding crews had to take a defensive position; the NIST report notes that “Beyond the WWFD’s response, this fire required only two additional apparatus from the Warwick Fire Department to augment the direct fire suppression operations at the scene (WFD Engine 1 and Ladder truck 1).”

Other notes from the report: “The initial attack was mounted by WWFD’s first unit, Engine 4, approximately 6½ minutes into the fire with the advance of a 1¾” line to the main entrance of the structure and the primary victim cache, and continued until the unit’s on-board water supply was exhausted. While the two 3″ supply lines to the front of the structure were being laid and charged, rescue efforts continued along the building’s north face, through both the broken windows and exits. However, these efforts were pursued without the benefit of protective hose lines and were substantially hampered by the rapid fire propagation, radiant heat and heavy volumes of smoke discharge from the structure … Once the two 3″ supply lines to Engine 4 were established approximately 10 minutes after their arrival, an apparatus-mounted deck gun/master stream operation was initiated from WWFD’s Engine 2 and additional hand lines deployed at the front and to the west side of the structure. No interior fire suppression attack had been possible at the outset of operations due to the untenable conditions and none was initiated until this final stage of the incident. Once able to get inside, suppression personnel checked the area for possible survivors, extinguished the last of the residual fires and wet down hot spots.”

Questions to consider:

  • Does your department practice/train on blitz-attack operations (high-flow defensive operations for quick knockdown)?
  • Do you have a reliable water supply in close proximity to areas of public assembly?
  • Does your department train on effective apparatus positioning or offensive, defensive and rescue operations upon arrival (engine, truck, etc.)?
  • Does your department/crew conduct regular training on when to initiate an offensive or defensive strategy? What are the critical factors that require one over the other?

In some incidents, fire masks the true emergency. The Station nightclub fire was an enormous mass-casualty incident (MCI), and it required an impressive response from EMS.

From the NIST report: “More than 200 other victims, many seriously hurt from burns, respiratory insult and physical trauma, were provided emergency care and triaged at the scene, then transported to hospitals in multiple states. This major mass casualty incident (MCI) effectively concluded its emergency on-scene and pre-hospital care operation (casualty collection, triage and transport) phase in less than two hours from the fire’s onset. The operation was accomplished expeditiously through the combined efforts of dozens of agencies (some 60 EMS units and untold number of individual care providers), notwithstanding the communications interoperability challenges experienced by many of the responding units.”

Questions to consider:

  • Are the members of your department fluent in MCI operations and are you comfortable working with your neighboring EMS agencies and other units that would respond to an MCI?
  • What communications issues might you face when trying to coordinate an MCI mutual-aid response?
  • What equipment does your department carry that could be useful in treating and protecting large numbers of victims, especially in inclement weather? How fast could you get this equipment to the scene?

Fire Codes
The Station was unsprinklered; sprinklers were not required at the time. However, the NIST report cites numerous code infractions that contributed to the fire and the subsequent loss of life.

Questions to consider

  • Are the members of your department advocates of sprinklers? If not, why not?
  • When it’s your turn to perform inspections, do you do so reluctantly, or eagerly, knowing your efforts could save lives?
  • Code enforcement, especially in older buildings or smaller communities, is rarely black and white. Have you ever felt pressured to “look the other way” at an infraction?  What actions have you taken to overcome this issue?


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