Fire Safety on 10-Year Anniversary of Fatal Rhode Island Nightclub Fire

By: Deon Guillory Email
By: Deon Guillory Email

HARRISONBURG -- On Jan. 27th, a fire at a nightclub in southern Brazil killed more than 230 people. Investigators said it started by a flare lit by band members.

About 10 years earlier, an eerily similar nightclub fire broke out in Rhode Island.

On Feb. 20, 2003, the Station Nightclub in West Warwick, R.I. turned into an inferno as the result of a pyrotechnics malfunction during a Great White concert. More than 100 people died in that fire.

David Kane lost his son.

"When we had 100 people die and 200 people seriously maimed and injured, nobody got the message," said Kane.

Gina Russo remembers that night. She lost her fiance in the fire.

"If they hadn't set off the pyrotechnics, then we wouldn't be having this conversation," said Russo.

In the 10 years since that fire, there have been big changes made in the Valley. Fire inspectors go to the city's night spots to make sure there is more than one exit and entrance to ensure everyone gets out alive in case of a fire.

"We usually give a notice of violation, a second re-inspection and if it's not corrected the third time they get a summons to appear in court," said Capt. Steve Morris, a Harrisonburg fire inspector.

Capt. Morris is the man everyone looks at when he enters an establishment.

"We're like, almost like a customer. We know their name, they know us and we talk."

Since 2005, his job is to keep occupants safe while checking for possible violations to his checklist. Those violations include making sure there is no overcrowding and that the number of people inside doesn't exceed the capacity. He also looks for blocked aisles and doorways that could increase the amount of time to get out in case of an emergency. He ensures that all the exit doors are unlocked.

Capt. Morris looks for those things and more from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.

As he made his rounds through one establishment, he checked an exit door to make sure it wasn't locked.

Then he stopped to speak with the man letting people inside the building. That man used a manual counter to keep track of everyone who came through the doors.

Everything was fine at the first place, so he moved to another.

After a quick chat with the guy at the door, Capt. Morris continued through the building. He found an unlocked exit door, which is something he said we should all look for.

"Most of the time we'll go out this way, but if something bad happens, I want to know I can go out that way too."

Capt. Morris has noticed something else that always happens when he enters the bars.

"Whoever's playing music or Djing will notice we're there and they will announce the fire exits at that time too."

Knowing where the exits are could have helped in nightclub fires in Bangkok, Peru, Brazil and Rhode Island.

"They all say the same thing, 'Oh, I can't believe it happened here,' and that's the problem. We don't think that tragedy will come to our door," said Kane.

Capt. Morris and others work to make sure those fatal nightclub fires don't happen in the Valley. He said it's been a long time since he's had to write a summons.

Construction on a memorial for the station fire in Rhode Island is expected to start this spring.


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