February 20 marks fifth anniversary of Station Nightclub fire

Shortly after 11 p.m. on Thursday, February 20, 2003, a fire at The Station Nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island, left 100 dead and many more injured. This fire, which occurred five years ago, was one of the deadliest nightclub fires in the history of the United States.

“Inadequate fire protection features were a major contributing factor to the significant number of deaths and injuries,” said Chris Jelenewicz, Engineering Program Manager with the Bethesda, Maryland-Based Society of Fire Protection Engineers. “Additionally, exiting from the nightclub was hampered by over crowding at the building’s main entrance.”

The Station Nightclub was a one-story, wood frame building that regularly hosted live band performances. The fire started onstage while a rock band was playing.

Fire investigators determined the fire started when pyrotechnics used during the band’s performance ignited polyurethane foam that lined parts of the nightclub’s walls and ceilings. After ignition, the fire spread quickly along the ceiling and throughout the building. Within seconds, deadly thick black smoke filled the nightclub, and flames were observed breaking trough the roof in less than five minutes after the fire started.

Over 440 people occupied the building at the time of the fire. Very shortly, after the start of the fire, the main front doorway became clogged with occupants trying to exit the building.

In addition, the building was not equipped with an automatic fire sprinkler system. An investigation following the blaze by the National Institute for Standards and Technology revealed that this tragedy would have been adverted if a fire sprinkler system was installed in the building at the time of the fire.

This combination of a fast moving fire that was caused by the polyurethane insulation coupled with the inability of the exits to handle the occupants were the major contributors to the 100 fire deaths. Many of the dead had either been burned to death or died of smoke inhalation, though some were trampled in the rush to escape.

“Because the fire and smoke spread so quickly through the building and the building was not equipped with a fire suppression system, the building occupants just didn’t have enough time to get out alive,” said Jelenewicz.

As a result of this fire, many building requirements were enhanced to make nightclubs safer from fire. Some of these requirements included provisions for automatic fire sprinklers in new and existing nightclubs and a requirement to have crowd managers present to assist with emergency building evacuations.

The Station Nightclub fire investigation was performed using cutting-edge engineering tools. After the station nightclub fire, fire protection engineers used computer fire models along with full-scale fire tests to analyze how the fire spread through the building. Additionally, the analysis predicted the impact of the fire if fire sprinklers were installed in the building.

“The Station Nightclub Fire reminds us of the threat that is posed by fire and the importance of designing buildings that that keep people safe from fire,” said Jelenewicz.

About Society of Fire Protection Engineers

Organized in 1950, the Society of Fire Protection Engineers is the professional society for engineers involved in the field of fire protection engineering. The purposes of SFPE are to advance the science and practice of fire protection engineering, maintain a high ethical standing among its members and foster fire protection engineering education. SFPE’s worldwide members include engineers in private practice, in industry and in local, regional and national government. Chapters are located in Canada, China, France, Italy, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Spain, Sweden and the United States.

More information about SFPE can be found at www.sfpe.org.

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