NIST Offers Guidelines after R.I. Nightclub Fire

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Fire-safety experts investigating the 2003 nightclub blaze that killed 100 people recommended Thursday that sprinklers be required in such venues and inspections be improved to try to prevent similar tragedies.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology also said nightclubs should have to follow tighter rules on using flammable materials; improve exits, such as widening doorways; and have additional portable fire extinguishers.

The recommendations - among a dozen urged for adoption by organizations that develop fire safety codes - came after a two-year probe into the Feb. 20, 2003, fire at The Station, which also injured hundreds.

The fire started when sparks from a rock band's pyrotechnics ignited foam placed around the stage as soundproofing. Flames raced through the single-story, wooden roadhouse, and panicked concertgoers tripped over each other as they stampeded to the exits, causing a pileup.

The federal report blamed the fire's rapid spread on a hazardous mix of building materials, the club's lack of any way to put out the fire; and the inability of exits to handle the flood of people.

The agency has no regulatory authority and does not assign blame. None of the results of its probe can be used as evidence in criminal cases or lawsuits.

Rhode Island has already adopted many of the recommendations in a sweeping fire-safety law passed after the fire. However, it exempts smaller nightclubs from installing sprinklers. The federal report recommends that all nightclubs, regardless of size, install sprinklers.

The report also recommended requiring multiple fire-protection systems; considering what happened in past fires when changing safety codes; ensuring that fire departments have enough staff and equipment; researching human behavior in emergencies; researching the spread and suppression of fire; and developing computer models to help communities considering safety-code changes.

Older clubs should not be exempt from new rules, said the report, which will become final after public comment.

During its investigation, the federal team reconstructed the nightclub's stage area and conducted fire tests, finding that a non-fire-retardant foam ignited within 10 seconds when exposed to a pyrotechnic device. Under similar conditions, a fire-retardant foam sample did not ignite.

Investigators also examined the response by emergency personnel, the movement of concertgoers as they rushed to exits and the rapid spread of highly toxic smoke.

The report said concertgoers first recognized the danger 24 seconds after the foam ignited. The first 911 call came less than 16 seconds later. Four minutes after that, the first fire engine arrived. The report said that response time easily met national standards.

Shortly before the report was released publicly, federal officials met with family members.

Sarah Mancini, whose son, Keith, died in the fire, said the report helped her understand what happened to her son.

"It just showed how horrible it must have been," she said. "They didn't stand a chance."

She said she was comforted to know that the intense heat and toxic smoke meant those inside had died quickly, and she said she hopes the recommendations will protect future clubgoers.

The agency had previously released parts of its analysis, including how people tried to leave the burning building. Most rushed to the front exit, creating a pileup that kept others from getting out.

Building evacuation software found that if the club's four exits were available and its capacity was at the legal limit of 404, all patrons could flee in 2 minutes, 30 seconds.

But with 90 percent of the people rushing to the front exit, complete evacuation would have taken more than 4 minutes, according to the federal agency. State investigators have said the building was engulfed in just a few minutes, and most people who got out did so in the first minute and a half.

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On the Net:

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