Brazil nightclub blaze stirs sad memories of Rhode Island tragedy

The burned-out remains of the Station nightclub in West Warwick, R.I., Feb. 21, 2003. A pyrotechnic display ignited this Rhode Island club, which left 100 dead. AP Photo/Robert E. Klein

News of Sunday's horrendous nightclub fire in a Brazilian college town, in which at least 233 people died, has a special meaning to victims of one of the worst tragedies in U.S. history: The 2003 fire at the Station nightclub in West Warwick, R.I.

In circumstances similar to the Brazil fire, pyrotechnics used as a stage prop by the rock band Great White set ablaze soundproofing foam on the venue's walls and ceiling. The quickly spreading smoke and fire killed 100 people and injured 200 more. It was the fourth-deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history.

An official with the West Warwick Fire Department who had inspected the Station several times prior to the fire told a grand jury he had missed the flammable polyurethane foam that had been installed as soundproofing, according to the Providence Journal. Denis Larocque had also raised the legal limit for the club's capacity, which on the night of the fire was over-crowded.

In 2006 owners Jeffrey and Michael Derderian (who installed the polyurethane foam) and Daniel Biechele (tour manager of the band Great White who set off the pyrotechnics) were convicted on 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter.

In the aftermath of the Station fire, state officials in Rhode and Massachusetts enacted new laws and code changes, including automatic sprinkler requirements (there were none in the Station), mandatory smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, improved means of egress, and a ban on stage pyrotechnics in most (smaller) spaces. Federal and international agencies have also revised building and fire codes.

Yet stage pyrotechnics have been implicated in other deadly nightclub fires since the Station disaster -- in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 2004 (at least 194 people died), and in Perm, Russia in December 2009 (152 dead).

David Kane, whose 18-year-old son Nicky O'Neil was the youngest victim of the Station fire, told CBS News that new laws aren't needed: "We need elected officials who did their job. The reason the Station fire happened was because a fire marshal ignored his responsibility, and overcrowded that club."

Kane said the shame is that we don't seem to learn from these tragedies.

"We think that mass murders or killings or accidents or fires happen someplace else, and that's terribly wrong," Kane said. "And until we realize that and really take it seriously nothing's going to change."

With news of 232 dead in the Brazil nightclub fire - which early indications suggest was caused by stage pyrotechnics, and exacerbated by non-working fire extinguishers and insufficient emergency exits - Kane saw the sad similarities to the 2003 Rhode Island blaze - and the need to strengthen enforcement.

"If that isn't enough to get people on board with this stuff, I don't know what is," he told CBS News. "Does the number have to be bigger?"

  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at CBSNews.com and cbssundaymorning.com.

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