The race for the exits was lost almost before it began. The occupants of the burning building, mostly young people, never stood a chance as the voracious fire tore through the walls and ceilings. Halls and doorways were quickly choked with smoke, flames and superheated air that consumed their victims in minutes. When it was all over, scores of people lay dead -- some as young as 11 years old. The city's shock and grief soon turned to outrage, as survivors and victims' families demanded an immediate investigation into who was responsible for this tragic but utterly preventable disaster.
The fire, which occurred on March 25, 1911, in the Asch Building in lower Manhattan, claimed the lives of Triangle Shirtwaist Company employees, most of whom were young immigrant women. The massive public outcry from that disaster resulted in some of the nation's first fire-prevention laws, including mandates about fire alarms, sprinkler systems, fire escapes and routine fire inspections of large buildings.
Ninety-two years and thousands of fire codes later, the lessons from that fire still couldn't save the 98 people who died last month in the Station nightclub in West Warwick, R.I. As with the stampede that killed 21 people in a Chicago nightclub days earlier, this conflagration underscores the challenges faced by fire safety experts when trying to protect large indoor crowds -- there's only so much they can do to prevent tragedy. Ultimately, they say, it's up to the bar owners and the public to do their part.
"I can walk into a bar and do an inspection and find everything's hunky-dory," says Terry Francis, fire marshal and battalion chief with the Burlington Fire Department. "Fifteen minutes later ice can fall off the roof and block a fire exit, and the person working the door can say, 'Screw it! The fire marshal is gone. I'm going to let in as many people as I can before last call.'"
Francis says last month's Rhode Island fire may have helped raise public awareness somewhat, but it hasn't changed how he does his job. Burlington has the highest density of bars and nightclubs in the state, but it's still one of the safest places in Vermont for music and concertgoers -- 64 percent of all indoor performance venues are outfitted with sprinkler systems.
On any given night, Francis and his staff are making the rounds from bar to bar between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. looking for improperly charged fire extinguishers, locked or obstructed fire exits, blown exit lights and crowds that exceed the legal maximum occupancy.
Not surprisingly, overcrowding remains the most common fire-code violation. When police or fire marshals find a bar over capacity, they hold the door on "fire watch" and prevent anyone from coming in until enough patrons have left. Depending upon the severity of the violation, a club owner can be slapped with an immediate fine ranging from $100 to $1000. Within the last few months, Akes' Place on Church Street and Valencia on Pearl Street have both been cited for overcrowding violations, according to Francis.
Fines are not the only incentive keeping bar and club owners in check. If a second violation occurs, the fire marshal and the Department of Liquor Control can suspend the club's liquor license. Several years ago, Red Square on Church Street was closed for two weeks; in February 2000, Sh-Na-Na's was shut down for 45 days for numerous violations, the fire marshal reports.
Red Square owner Jack O'Brien says his establishment is now one of the safest music venues in town. "We have a fire marshal in here at least once a week checking on everything," he says. "I can't tell you how closely scrutinized we are." O'Brien's bar, which features live music at least six nights a week, is on the ground floor and has 11 exits, fire extinguishers at every bar and sprinklers throughout the building. Moreover, his staff has been trained to quickly move people out of the place in an emergency, and there's always a manager on site to ensure that nothing irregular occurs -- such as the unauthorized pyrotechnics display that started the Station fire.
Alex Crothers, co-owner of Higher Ground in Winooski, agrees that the recent nightclub fires heightened everyone's awareness, but says, "Honestly, it hasn't changed anything we do because we've always taken what we do seriously. We've had emergency procedures in place since day one."
The live music club, which can hold up to 500 people, has sprinklers and a fire alarm linked to the Winooski Fire Department located just a half-mile away. In an emergency all the house lights come up automatically and an activated voice tells everyone to proceed to the nearest exits. Like O'Brien, Crothers says it would be virtually impossible for someone to set off a pyrotechnics display without a manager knowing it. In fact, don't expect to see indoor fireworks anywhere in Vermont for some time. Governor Jim Douglas recently declared a moratorium on them.
But as one downtown Burlington proprietor (who asked to remain anonymous) admits, "Probably everybody breaks the law in terms of occupancy capacity. If we weren't doing that, we wouldn't be making the money we have to in order to stay open."
Even the most safety-conscious Burlington proprietors will soon feel the impact of last month's Rhode Island fire -- when their insurance policies come up for renewal. "Insurance rates were going up anyway, but this only exacerbates it," says David Holton, president of the Essex Agency, a local insurance company that writes policies for many Burlington-area bars and restaurants. "The fears that underwriters have are manifested when they see an event like this happen."
Ultimately, fire safety experts like Francis say that bar and club patrons must do their part to assure their own safety. For example, when entering a club, he says, look around and locate the nearest exits in the event of an emergency. Should you find yourself in an overcrowded bar or club, Francis says, don't hesitate to call 911 and report it.
Francis says it's not so much a club's design but the behavior of its patrons that can create the biggest problems. "I always get a little anxious about a place where they're serving alcohol to people. That's not a comment on society, it's a comment on what I know about the fire fatalities in the last 20 years in the city of Burlington," says Francis. "All of them have had at-risk behaviors -- drinking, smoking, not being familiar with their surroundings. Does that sound like a bar or what?"