The nightclub, is an aged small wood structure in Rhode Island. The club is reported to have a capacity of 182 people. On February 20th 2003, more then 400 fans packed into the small club to see a band. Although there are discrepancies between reports of how many people were in attendance, it is obvious that the number is well over twice the club's capacity.
During the performance, as part of the act, pyrotechnics were deployed. The pyrotechnics were gerbs. Gerbs are cylindrical devices that are designed to make a spray of 15-foot plumes of sparks for 15 seconds. Gerbs are befitting for use indoors, as long as the appropriate precautions are taken. The pyrotechnics ignited a polyurethane (egg crate foam) material that is used for packing and product display--but not for "sound proofing," as it was used lining the stage. Considering that this foam is not intended for use as a sound treatment in buildings, it was not treated with fire retardants.
Due to the size and age of the building (built before 1976), safety regulations said that the nightclub did not have to have a sprinkler system, and it thus did not have one. The fire originating on the stage quickly filled the club with toxic smoke from the burning polyurethane and other building materials. In the shear moment of panic, the people caused a scene of chaotic proportions: stampeding towards the only exit they knew--the way they got in. Over 400 people all trying to get out one door at the same time caused a massive pileup trapping the majority of people inside. Just prior to the fire department arriving on scene the super heated gases trapped in the building ignited causing what is called a “flashover." Temperatures exceeding 932 to 1112 degrees Fahrenheit instantly igniting everything within the club, 100 people were killed and close to 200 people were injured.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) published a report that identified three factors that lead to the rapidly spreading fire, building failure, and the excessive loss of life. These three factors are: (1) "The hazardous mix of building contents, (2) An inadequate capability to suppress the fire early, and (3) The inability of exits to handle the egress of all of the occupants in the short time available with such a fast-growing fire." As mentioned previously, all three of these factors do seem to have played vital roles. From this report, we are first and foremost reminded of the need for building materials that are not highly flammable, and that do not create toxic fumes when ignited. Additionally, the need for sufficient and well marked exits and staff to point patrons in the direction of these exits is critical. We are also reminded of the essential need for adequate fire suppression systems—for example, sprinkler systems and fire extinguishers.
Fire Chief Charlie Hall of the West Warwick Fire Department has noted that because the club was a small wooden structure and was not required...