Disco Inferno


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.

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.

Bomb, who has opened for WASP—a band that shares its road crew with Great White—adds, “Headline bands from the ’80s tend to think they are really big stars and have a big ego and tend to think the laws of the world don’t apply to them.”

But other artists who perform with fire fear the catastrophe will bring about overzealous enforcement. Tyler Fyre, who wows CBGB, Remote Lounge, and Slipper Room crowds with his fire-breathing feats and runs the Lucky Devil Circus Sideshow, worries the city will go for a zero-tolerance policy. In the early ’90s Fyre (real name: Tyler Fleet) lived and worked as an entertainment reporter in West Warwick, where he used to attend shows at the Station; he says he doesn’t remember the place being a fire hazard. For the past six years, he’s worked professionally with fire.

He was attending a conference called “MotionFest” for variety-show performers in Reno, Nevada, the day the Station’s fire occurred, and says it was a topic of discussion among attendees. “It’s gonna be that much harder to convince [nightclub owners] that what we do really is safe,” he says.

Fyre notes that the city’s fire codes in relation to fire-breathing are murky. “It’s really one of the gray areas of the law,” he says. “With pyrotechnics you need a licensed person, but for fire-eating, you do not. The law varies from place to place.”

He says whether or not an act involving fire is safe is often left to the performer’s judgment. “I was booked for a Christmas party,” he recalls, “and there were paper streamers all over the place. I said I would not perform because there is a risk for everyone. Most of the time I would just alter my show to make it fit in the venue.”

The video filmed during Great White’s show by Rhode Island television reporter Brian Butler—who was, in an eerie coincidence, investigating the safety of nightclubs—shows that the soundproof foam just behind the Station’s stage is what ignited, before flames engulfed the club in less than three minutes. And though some soundproofing is flameproof, Bob Leo says, “Whether it’s flame-retardant or not, I don’t want anything touching it.”

If a New York venue wants pyrotechnics, a licensed person—trained (usually by the fire department itself) and certified by the state—is required to run the show. The venue also needs permission from the FDNY Explosives Unit, which approves the use of pyro only after a joint site inspection. The city also mandates that fire protection (extinguishers inside and, in some cases, fire trucks on hand outside) be available for the duration of the show. “The rules apply to nightclub shows, Broadway plays,” and, says a fire department spokesperson, “venues as big as the Grammy Awards.”

With the Station in ashes, the cycle has started again. The National Sprinkler Association is debating whether the country’s buildings should be retrofitted with sprinklers. The WNYPA is “trying desperately to get standardized regulations through New York State,” says Leo.

John Steinberg, president of the Pyrotechnics Guild International, says his organization is drafting “letters to fire marshals suggesting they require permits.”

“This accident was completely unnecessary,” adds Steinberg. “Pyrotechnics have been used at this rate for over 10 years. We’ve done it tens of thousands of times without hurting audiences. Pyrotechnics are an extremely safe theatrical device in the hands of a competent operator. In the hands of someone who doesn’t comply with codes and doesn’t know what they’re doing, it’s like letting someone who’s never been trained fly an airplane. It’s not even a matter of if—it’s when,” says Steinberg. “They are, guaranteed, going to crash.”

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