Commentary: Rhode Island Fire Officials Dodge Jail Time By Framing Band Manager

By Newsferatu, Writer
Wednesday, February 8, 2006 @ 9:16 AM

Guaranteed to "burn like hell"

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Fire protection engineer, author, and President of the Crusade Against Fire Deaths, Inc has issued this flameout over how Rhode Island fire officials, in his opinion, are skirting blame in the Station Nightclub fire.

"On February 20, 2003 a fire started in the Station Nightclub in Rhode Island. It was initiated by a pyrotechnic display as part of the band’s routine. The result was 100 deaths and many injuries. The basic cause of the deaths was the installation of highly combustible sheathing on the walls and ceiling near the stage area. Now the manager of the band apparently will be given jail time because presumably he authorized the pyrotechnic display. However, it was the existence of highly combustible sheathing in the vicinity that was the fundamental cause of the deaths. Putting the blame on the band manager was a strategy to shift the blame from those who were most responsible, the fire department officials, including those from the office of the State Fire Marshal. Why the fire officials were most responsible for this tragedy is explained below.

GUARANTEED TO "BURN LIKE HELL": The foam plastic sheathing on the ceiling and walls near the stage had an extremely high flame spread rating and obviously was easily ignited. Highly flammable construction material should never be allowed in a place of assembly where many lives would be at risk. It was guaranteed to "burn like hell" once ignited. When material of this nature starts to burn it flashes so quickly, and creates such fast killing fumes and blinding smoke, that there is very little time to escape. With the flames virtually exploding and the acrid smoke spreading fast, panic was assured. Only those who could quickly reach the exits were likely to survive. Highly combustible sheathing has been prohibited within buildings (and especially places of assembly) for decades, going back to at least the Cocoanut Grove Supper Club fire of 1942 where 492 died. Who are the “fire experts” who presumably have been educated to know that wall sheathing that flashes is not allowed within virtually any building, but especially not in a place of assembly? I believe you call them the fire chiefs, not the band managers. The pyrotechnic display that ignited that super fast burning material, if properly used within a normal building probably would have been quite safe and no menace to the guests.

THREE WAYS TO CREATE A FLASH FIRE: The Station Nightclub fire was a flash fire. A flash fire can cause panic and kill people even if the building is in complete accordance with the codes. There are three ways to create a flash fire which can drop and kill occupants faster than they can reach an exit. One way is with a highly flammable liquid. Pour a gallon of gasoline on the floor and throw in a match. This has happened many times. The second way is to sheathe the walls with highly flammable materials or otherwise allow solid flammable materials into a building that will burn explosively fast. This is what caused the deaths at the Station nightclub. The third way is to allow an undiscovered fire burn until it reaches the flashover stage. Fire within a code complying building involving normal furnishings and contents (such as will be found in any home), will often double in size every minute. (Note: For about 80 years of the 20th century any non sprinklered building was not a violation of the fire codes) Then, when the deadly gases at the ceiling level are extensive enough and above a thousand degrees F., what could be described as a chain reaction occurs. The super hot gases at the ceiling radiate downward heating all combustible materials below to their auto-ignition points. Then the entire room or area will explodes into flames. The explosively expanding fire will create excessive pressure which will then accelerate the flames and gases outward in all directions. Flames and pressure from a flashover fire can travel faster than a man can run and may actually knock people down. It is interesting that fire scientists and research engineers knew of this “flashover” phenomenon during the early decades of the 20th century, but they never defined its role in real building fires. Only after I began to analyze it and write about it as a condition that frequently occurred in real buildings did it become a recognized cause of thousands of deaths.

DO NOT USE GASOLINE INSIDE PLACES OF ASSEMBLY: Are we to believe that the Rhode Island fire department officials were so ignorant of the hazards associated with gasoline that they did not realize that a bucket of gasoline should not be allowed inside a crowded nightclub? I doubt it. Well, how about painting the walls and ceiling with gasoline? Should the fire officials allow that? How about sheathing the walls and ceiling with what many fire safety officials refer to as “SOLIDIFIED GASOLINE”? There are only three reasons why the fire officials of Rhode Island would allow the “easy to ignite-burn like hell” foam plastic sheathing to be installed in the Stations Nightclub. The reasons are:

1. Extreme incompetence. Did not know the essential basics of fire safety.
2. Extreme carelessness, a failure to properly check plans or inspect places of assembly.
3. Dishonesty. Fire officials catering to influential organizations is not unheard of.

WHO SHOULD KNOW THE FUNDERMENTALS OF FIRE SAFETY? So, who should know that highly flammable, easy to ignite interior sheathing must be disallowed within buildings, especially places of assembly? Should Daniel Biechele, the manager of the Great White Band be an expert on interior sheathing and realize that a spark from a fireworks display, or for that matter a carelessly dropped match, could end up killing a hundred people? I doubt it. Fire technology is not the expertise of band managers. Would a building owner realize that the sound absorbing material being applied to the walls and ceiling is in violation of the building code, the fire code, the NFPA codes and most other codes or regulations the fire officials help write and enforce? Possibly, but that would be an unusually knowledgeable building owner. Clearly, the people being charged with crimes associated with this tragedy are NOT fire safety “experts”. Well, if we eliminate the building owners and the band, and the people who collect the tickets, check the coats and sweep the floors; who are the ones that are expected to know that materials that “Burn Like Hell” have no place where large numbers of people gather? Just in case those Rhode Island officials still do not understand, I advise all of you; do not allow gasoline in any form to be in places of assembly.

FIRE RESISTANT VS HIGHLY COMBUSTIBLE: Buildings where people gather, even homes, are sheathed on the interior with materials that go beyond noncombustible. The normal sheathing for building walls and ceilings is gypsum board (usually called sheetrock) or equivalent, a fireproofing material. One can take a blow torch and hold the flame directly against the sheetrock for five or ten or more minutes. Not only does this material not burn, it prevents the heat from penetrating the barrier and igniting combustible material in contact with the sheathing on the other side. The material that was used for soundproofing the stage area obviously was at the opposite extreme end of the scale. There is nothing new about highly combustible sheathing being a menace within a building. During the 1940s and 50s and probable even later, low density highly combustible fiber board was often installed in the ceilings of homes. These acoustic tiles burned almost like Christmas trees and thousands of fire deaths resulted. If the walls and ceiling in the Station Nightclub had not been sheathed with the “solidified gasoline”, the pyrotechnic display would have been a fun experience and everyone present would have gone home talking about the wonderful time they had.

AN EXAMPLE OF A POST FLASHOVER FIRE: The MGM Grand Hotel fire of 1980 where 85 died (and about 5000 who were trapped in the tower above the fire came extremely close to being killed) is an example of a post flashover fire within a “code complying building”. The casino was huge and, for the casino itself there was an abundance of exits and a clear path to them all. A fire started in a closed restaurant at one end of the casino. It was early morning and only a few were still at the tables and the slots. Because the fire in the restaurant appeared to be not a serious problem to those gambling and at the check-in desk, things continued as normal as the fire fighters entered. Presumably they would promptly terminate the fire. But, at that instant the fire within the restaurant went into the flashover condition. Flames rolled down the ceiling of that huge casino at an estimated 19 feet per second. Those fleeing for the plentiful exits were overrun by the flames and dropped in their tracks. Fortunately, the fire fighters were perhaps only 20 feet or so inside the building. By rushing back out they were able to escape before being cremated. One got out so close to not making it that the plastic visor on his helmet, which was turned up, was made opaque by the heat before he could get out. When he reentered behind hose streams a few minutes later and dropped his visor he could not see through it.


(Read the rest of this story HERE.)

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