Nightclub Safety Under Scrutiny

The 96 deaths in two nightclubs within five days this week could elevate nightclub safety as a public policy issue, as major tragedies often do.

However, different issues were at play in the stampede at Chicago's E2 club early Monday morning and the ferocious blaze that consumed The Station in West Warwick, R.I., on Thursday night.

Both the safety laws governing the clubs and the way those laws are enforced are issues in the early aftermaths of both disasters.

In Chicago, 21 people died when a fight broke out and guards used pepper spray to break it up, triggering a run for the exits that left victims crushed or suffocated.

In the aftermath, a host of questions arose: Was the club open in violation of a court order? Were the exit doors locked? Who hired the guards? Why wasn't a maximum occupancy posted for the club.

The owner of the club, Dwain Johann Kyles, could face fines and more than a year in jail for criminal contempt of court. Kyles and his supporters claim there was no standing order to keep the club closed.

Chicago officials have rejected any suggestion they were slow or lax in their efforts to close down the club, and have rebuffed criticisms of the way they responded to the stampede.

Four days after the Chicago stampede and several states east, at least 75 people perished when pyrotechnics used in a rock concert sparked a fire that gutted The Station nightclub.

There, exit doors were available, but people tended not to use them and apparently tried to exit through the front door. Many of the dead were found near that exit.

Fire Chief Charles Hall said the club, which was at least 60 years old, had no sprinklers because it wasn't required to due to its small size. Hall also said the club had no permit for the pyrotechnics display.

The pyrotechnics were used without permission from the club, said Kathleen Hagerty, a lawyer representing club owners Michael and Jeffrey Derderian.

"No permission was ever requested by the band or its agents to use pyrotechnics at The Station, and no permission was ever given," she said.

But the band's singer, Jack Russell, said the manager checked with the club before the show and the use of pyrotechnics was approved. And Paul Woolnough, president of Great White's management company, said tour manager Dan Biechele "always checks" with club officials before pyrotechnics are used.

"I'm not going to reply to those allegations, but I do know that the club would have been informed, as they always are," Woolnough said. Biechele could not immediately be located for comment.

The owner of a well-known New Jersey nightclub said Great White failed to tell him they were using pyrotechnics for a concert there a week ago.

In the theatrical pyrotechnics business, the effects that ignited the fire are called "gerbes," from the French word for sparks.

They are relatively simple contraptions, consisting of a powder charge inside a floor-mounted tube or pipe about an inch in diameter. The charge is usually ignited by an electric spark that is triggered by remote control, shooting a tower of flame into the air. A metal additive in the charge, such as titanium or tungsten, gives the flame a sparkling effect.

"It should be very safe if it is done right," said Dorothy Drewes, an editor at American Fireworks News, a trade publication based in Dingmans Ferry, Pa.

When properly operated, the height and duration of the flame produced by any pyrotechnic device can be precisely calibrated, Drewes said.

While it is not immediately clear that the Chicago stampede or the Warwick blaze will lead to new regulations or stiffer enforcement, major tragedies have sometimes prompted important changes in the law or professional conduct.

The most famous case of a tragedy spurring public demands for government action was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory blaze in New York City, which took 146 lives on March 25, 1911. It led to significant laws protecting workers' health and safety.

In the Dec. 7, 1946 fire at Atlanta's Winecoff Hotel, many of the 119 killed died trying to escape from a building with no fire escapes or sprinklers. The tragedy led to improved building codes around the country.

More recently, the collapse of glass walkways at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, Mo., on July 17, 1981 led the American Society of Civil Engineers to strengthen its ethics rules.