JUST THREE WEEKS have passed since the horrific fire at the Station nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island, which claimed 99 lives. There hasnít been enough time to fully investigate what happened, let alone draw conclusions beyond what should have been obvious from the beginning: donít set off pyrotechnic displays without a permit, much less in small, 60-year-old wooden buildings crowded with people. The band clearly exercised tragically poor judgment, and the club owners, at minimum, didnít exercise proper oversight. Yet politicians are, predictably, jumping into the fray feet first and proposing stricter regulations to govern nightclubs ó even though itís too early say with any authority what new regulations, if any, are needed to prevent such a tragedy from happening again. Itís wrong to assume that lax standards are the prevailing norm. The Station nightclub fire was the first instance of such a tragedy in Rhode Island history. Boston hasnít seen such a disaster since 1942ís Cocoanut Grove fire, in which 492 perished. In the aftermath of that fire, new regulations were implemented that make a difference to this day by requiring lighted exit ways and the widespread use of sprinklers. If the news out of Rhode Island is any indication, West Warwick town officials have a lot of questions to answer about the way they inspected the Station. But even if they need to improve the way they conduct inspections, cities like Boston and Providence hold club owners to a higher standard.
Meanwhile, attorneys are busy assigning blame to anyone ó particularly those with deep pockets ó even remotely associated with the event. With Rhode Island officials in the early stages of their investigation of the fire, however, no one can say with any certainty just who is actually responsible.
At this juncture, we can probably be sure of only one thing. A rush to judgment isnít going to make nightclubs safer. During a roundtable discussion sponsored by the Providence Phoenix, three club owners and two musicians talked about how the Station fire and its aftermath are affecting the local club scene. Rich Lupo, whoís owned and managed the nationally famous Heartbreak Hotel in Providence since 1975, summed up the political and legal response to the fire: "Itís hysteria. Iím not saying itís overreaction, but itís a state of hysteria thatís going on right now." And itís doubtful any response rooted in hysteria is going to prevent another tragedy.
Still, legislators in Rhode Island and city officials in Boston are considering imposing measures with negligible safety benefits on nightclubs. A number of these smaller venues, which operate on the margins of profitability to begin with, will likely be driven out of business if such regulations are implemented. Meanwhile, for safety reviews to have any meaningful impact, larger venues such as the FleetCenter, the Worcester Centrum, the Dunkiní Donuts Civic Center, the Ocean State Theater, Fenway Park, and Symphony Hall should be examined as well.
Rhode Island officials have filed a bill with the state legislature that would require the presence of two police officers at a club when there are more than 200 clubgoers present; it would also require two on-duty cops for any show that admits patrons under age 21. Itís hard to see how costly police details are going to make clubs safer places. Kevin Finnegan, whoís owned and managed the Ocean Mist nightclub in South Kingstown for 16 years, says that in the wake of the Station fire, he fears a tragedy like the one in Chicago last month, when 21 clubgoers were crushed to death after a fight broke out and the crowd raced for the exits. "Iím worried about having a small fire in the kitchen, and setting the sprinklers off," he says. "I worry about the crowd freaking out and stampeding to the exits. You could have five fire marshals and a wrestling team there, and people would still get trampled."
In Boston, city councilors are considering a measure that would effectively cut club capacity by a third. Dramatic occupancy changes have already been made in Rhode Island. Finnegan recently saw his occupancy permit slashed to 182 after 11 years of being permitted for 301 patrons. "But having [a limit of] 182 people in a place the size of the Ocean Mist is absurd," he says. "Absurd. If youíre worried about safety in that situation, you might as well stay home." Meanwhile, heís yet to book popular summer offerings like Eek-A-Mouse and Marcia Ball because he canít make money on these shows with a 182 occupancy limit. If things continue this way, he predicts, "In three to six months I will be out of business. No question."
Politicians need to work with, not against, club owners ó most of whom, as the record shows, take their responsibilities seriously. The political grandstanding that's taking place, coupled with a rush to enact new regulations without properly considering their impact, is irrational. Whatís even worse, however, is whatís motivating the attorneys who are working on wrongful-death lawsuits for surviving family members of the Station-fire victims. To date, two have been filed. These suits seek damages from club owners Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, the surviving members of the band Great White, and the town of West Warwick, as well as the American Foam Corporation, which sold sound-insulating foam to the Derderians; Clear Channel Communications, owner of radio station WHJY; and Anheuser-Busch. Unless thereís evidence that someone from American Foam lied to the Derderians about the insulating foam, which there isnít, how can American Foam be held responsible in any way for the fire? As for WHJY and Budweiser, did anyone from either company light the pyrotechnic display? No. (In fact, WHJY disc jockey Michael Gonsalves, who introduced Great White before the performance, died in the fire, as did Nicholas OíNeill, the 18-year-old son of WHJY talk-show host David Kane.) Did anyone from either company have any responsibility whatsoever for the tragedy either before or after it started? Again, no. So why are attorneys going after these companies? Because, unlike the Derderian brothers, surviving members of the band, and the town of West Warwick ó who are the parties most likely to be found culpable for the fire ó they have the deep pockets and insurance that can result in a large payoff.
Thereís a term for this. Itís called ambulance chasing. WHJY-FM ran seven and a half minutes of advertising for the show, and Budweiser, as it regularly did, made products available to clubgoers. The practice of media outlets ó and other companies ó associating themselves with public performances for promotional considerations is a well-established one. The Newport jazz and folk festivals are sponsored, respectively, by JVC sound systems and Ben and Jerryís ice cream. The Patriots play at a stadium named for Gillette. When Bruce Springsteen recently played in Providence, he did so in an arena named for Dunkiní Donuts. When holiday revelers attend First Night in Boston and Providence, they are taking part in celebrations sponsored in part by the Boston Globe and the Providence Journal. The Phoenix newspapers and the FNX radio network similarly sponsor concerts and events like these. To hold passive sponsors like Clear Channel and Budweiser responsible for the events at the Station is akin to holding the Globe or the Journal responsible if a tragedy should strike on New Yearís Eve.
In the post-fire response thus far, only one reasonable proposal stands out: requiring the installation of sprinkler systems. The Rhode Island legislature is considering a measure that would mandate sprinklers in clubs licensed for more than 100 patrons. And Boston city councilor Steve Murphy says the council is looking at ways to end the practice of grandfathering clubs from current building codes, which means that some venues that would otherwise be required to install sprinkler systems are exempt from the law because they predate its inception. While such systems are costly, as Murphy points out, insurance premiums go down dramatically for venues with sprinklers. Or, as Kevin Cummings, who owns and manages the Cats nightclub in Pawtucket, put it at the Phoenix roundtable: "Bring places up to code. Thatís it right there, guys. Just that statement: the codes are there for all of us. We take on a certain responsibility by opening our doors and saying come on and play here. Eat, drink, dance, and have a good time."
Itís not easy to set aside emotion when dealing with something like the Station fire. But thatís just what we need to do right now. Reactive measures can threaten the economic survival of our vital entertainment industry. Meanwhile, a calm and rational analysis of what additional measures should be taken will ensure public safety.
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