Disco Inferno

New York Nightclubs Fend Off Conflagration

When most people go out to a nightclub, the last thing on their minds is safety. But in the wake of deadly club disasters last week in Chicago and Rhode Island, that is likely to change.

The 21 people who died in a panic stampede at Chicago's E2 club probably didn't check for additional exits when they walked inside—and if they had, they wouldn't have found any. And the patrons probably weren't aware they weren't even supposed to be upstairs at all—a city court order had deemed the second floor unsafe.

The 97 people who burned to death or suffocated in the smoke at West Warwick, Rhode Island, nightclub the Station probably didn't realize that the pyrotechnics display that hair-metal washouts Great White employed to rekindle memories of their arena-rock glory was illegal and dangerous. In fact, many didn't realize there was a fire at all, until it was too late.

Fire-breathing Tyler Fyre, former resident of West Warwick, Rhode Island
photo: Tyler Fyre
Fire-breathing Tyler Fyre, former resident of West Warwick, Rhode Island

But New York City isn't Chicago or a small town in Rhode Island, and CBGB isn't the Station. This couldn't happen here. Or could it?

In a way, it already has.

While the city's efforts at policing nightlife in recent years have focused on preventing drug use and enforcing the cabaret law, the last major catastrophe to happen at a club did not result from overdose or dancing, but from a fire. The 1990 blaze that claimed 87 lives at Happy Land Social Club in the Bronx differed from the Rhode Island fire in a number of ways. It was set deliberately by Julio Gonzalez, a jilted lover who—Bronx D.A. Robert Johnson claimed—knew the place was a firetrap. Gonzalez, who ignited the fire with $1 worth of gasoline, was sentenced to 25 years to life.

Happy Land was also an unofficial, illegitimate venue, and its owner had already been cited for fire code violations before the incident. The Station's blaze was a foolish accident at a licensed, legal venue that had just been given a clean bill two months before. The Station's most fatal design flaw was its lack of sprinklers—which weren't required, due to the club's small size and a grandfather clause that does not require existing clubs to install them.

The Station: West Warwick, Rhode Island, February 20, 2003
(photo: Staci Schwartz)

Every time a tragic fire destroys a nightclub, the cycle starts: an inquiry into what went wrong and who is to blame, followed by a vow from the authorities to tighten up the fire codes.

"That's the way government works," Bob Leo of the Western New York Pyrotechnic Association says. "They'll make a ton more rules that will be totally irrelevant, just so the people think they're doing something."

Boston, however, successfully tightened its fire codes—now known as the Grove Laws—after a 1942 fire that killed 492 people at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub. The owner of the club, Barnett Welansky, was convicted of manslaughter and served three years in prison.

After Happy Land's fire, New York City mayor David Dinkins cracked down on neighborhood social clubs, many of which were illegal disasters waiting to happen. He sent 20 teams of police officers and fire and building inspectors to evaluate the clubs; after shutting down problem venues, Dinkins claimed success and reduced his force to 10 teams. Later, Rudy Giuliani installed MARCH—the Multi-Agency Response to Community Hotspots—to patrol nightclubs.

"With regards to New York City building regulations, we are probably the strictest in the country," says Frank Gribbon, the fire department's deputy commissioner for public information. For instance, any NYC facility that promotes public assembly is required to have fire guards present, so many nightclub employees undergo fire department safety training.

"You can't get away with stuff here that you can get away with in other places," agrees fire department spokesman Paul Iannizzotto.

Robert Bookman, the legal counsel for the New York Nightlife Association, says a fire like the Station's could never occur here—largely thanks to regulations resulting from a 1975 fire at Blue Angel, which killed seven people. "The [Station's] situation would have been completely under control in 20 seconds," he says. In licensed cabarets and in live performance spaces, says Bookman, "the sprinklers come on; the sound system automatically cuts off; the emergency lights automatically go on."

"Now you have people in a crowded room, and there's no confusion as to whether [the fire]'s part of the show or not," he says. "There's no more show. The only thing they are hearing is a fire alarm."

"We had a 'thing' once with the fire department," says CBGB owner Hilly Kristal. "The sound is supposed to switch off. I had an argument with the fire department because I said, 'Look, you've got to have it switch off onstage, but not switch off where the control post is, because if the PA can still operate, they should be able to talk on it [to direct patrons during a fire].' They finally agreed, so the microphones stay on, but the amplifiers aren't," he explains. "They've been pretty good about these things, the fire department."

Local guitarist Adam Bomb, who regularly performs with pyrotechnics, was due to play East Village spot Lit the day before the Rhode Island disaster; Max Brennan, the bar's co-owner, nixed the pyro. "I told him he could not light up his guitar because the sprinkler system would go off," Brennan says.

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