Area Firefighters Reflect On The Tragic R.I. Blaze

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By Richard Fabrizio

Hampton Union, Sunday, February 23, 2003

HAMPTON- The deadly nightclub fire in Rhode Island left Seacoast firefighters debating how such a blaze happened and about its long-term effect.

The television at the York Beach Fire Department updated three firefighters who solemnly watched the latest news around noon on Saturday. The death toll continued to rise as West Warwick firefighters and investigators sifted through charred remains of the club, The Station.

By midday the dead numbered 96. More deaths are anticipated as at least 65 people remained hospitalized, more than a dozen in critical condition. Some are suffering from burns over 80 percent of their bodies. Two women who couldn't be identified are being treated at Massachusetts General Hospital's burn unit.

The dead and injured range in age from the teens to the late 30s.

Capt. Ferris Boardman said such a fire would shake up even the professionals.

"There'll be firefighters who never go back to work after this or leave the profession shortly after because of what they've seen," Boardman said.

Numerous reports detailed the smell and bodies burned beyond recognition to the point where identification may require DNA tests. One man who escaped the fire described it as witnessing hell.

While Boardman said, "We as firefighters see some nasty stuff," he admitted little training could prepare responders for the horror that continues to unfold. York Beach Fire Chief John Norton said training can only go so far.

"Until you actually see something like that, it's hard to say how you'll react," Norton said.

The chief and Boardman recalled fires in York over the years. Fires that claimed a life or two. "And that's enough," Norton said. "We've been lucky."

The Seacoast has a number of large seasonal and year-round venues that offer spaces for large crowds.

William "Skip" Sullivan was a firefighter in Hampton for 32 years, including his final 12 years as chief. Sullivan said Hampton Beach was a "disaster waiting to happen" when he joined the department in 1968.

"Conditions were horrible," he said. "Inadequate exits, no sprinkler systems. It was a disaster that just never happened."

One debate about The Station fire was the venue's lack of a sprinkler system, which was not required based on the club's size. Reports said the fire spread across the club in 10 to 15 seconds. West Warwick Fire Chief Charlie Hall told CNN, "If there were sprinklers in this building, we wouldn't be here right now."

Sullivan said Hampton continually improved its regulations on clubs and other buildings at the beach over the years. The town created a full-time fire prevention bureau and developed and enforced a strong set of regulatory codes.

"The primary function of any fire department is not to extinguish fires," he said. "It's to prevent them."

Exeter Fire Department Crew Chief Steve Rhodes said a long, drawn-out court battle will likely determine fault in The Station fire. Firefighters in Exeter have talked the past couple of days about the blaze, which Rhodes says will rank among the worst in the nation's history.

"Today after all we know about fire prevention, it's sorry to see all those lives lost," Rhodes said.

The fire was reported to have started after pyrotechnics used by Great White, a 1980s glam rock band, set off the rapidly moving blaze. The band's lead singer, Jack Russell, said the fire "went up like a Christmas tree."

Band members jumped off the stage and joined the crowd, heading toward the exit. Great White's guitarist Ty Longley, 28, is listed as missing.

The nightclub's owners deny they gave the rock band permission to use the fireworks. Russell insists the use of pyrotechnics was approved.

Rhodes said those involved may blame one another, but a bottom line is apparent.

"There's no way any (fire official) would have given them a permit to have fireworks in that building," he said. "No one in their right mind would have done that."

Sullivan agreed.

"Pyrotechnics should have never been allowed in that building," he said. "There were flammable decorations and foam soundproofing around the stage. There were low ceilings and the fire caught those people before they could get to the door."

Exeter Firefighter Kristie Anderson began work two weeks ago on a research paper as part of her training at the New Hampshire Technical College in Laconia. Anderson's paper studies building construction and she is using the infamous Coconut Grove fire in Boston as a point of reference. The massive November 1942 blaze killed 492 people, many of whom died from burns, smoke inhalation and from being trampled, much like The Station fire.

Anderson said doors at the Coconut Grove opened inward and there were no directions to secondary exits, some of which were hidden by fabric decorations.

"They found bodies stacked up at the main entrance," she said.

The Coconut Grove tragedy led to many modern fire code regulations as part of the Life Safety Code.

Sullivan couldn't believe The Station fire happened because he says the Northeast has the most stringent fire codes of any region in the country.

"It's what makes this such a shock," he said. "You know people who were in there didn't know what was going on. They all turned to go out the way they went in. It's human nature - just like Coconut Grove."

The fire reinforces the need for people to be familiar with fire escapes and what to do in the event of a fire, but Sullivan said tragedy provides a limited window of opportunity.

"People don't like to think of bad things," he said. "Public awareness will be spotlighted for a while. Right now this is a terrible tragedy, but after a few months, a few weeks, it will go out of people's minds completely."

That's why the firefighters say prevention is so vital.

"Everyone's trying to downsize, downsize, downsize," York Beach Chief Norton said about shrinking government services.

But Norton said inspections of public places and large venues must take place not only when clubs are empty but while they are filled during events.

Exeter's Anderson said there continues to be a constant struggle with people who want safety but don't want to spend money.

"Codes are extremely important because you can't always get people to do things voluntarily," Sullivan said.

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