Up In Flames

The '300 Rule' For When Nightclubs Must Have Sprinkler Systems

Four months after a fire destroyed The Station nightclub in West Warwick, R.I., the number of dead has reached 100 people.

Could anything have saved them? Fire experts say yes. How? A technology that was developed in the 1850s -- fire sprinklers.

Why didn't the club have sprinklers? The fact is many clubs like it across the country don't have sprinklers, and the reason may surprise you -- especially when you hear fire experts say that no one had to die when the Rhode Island club went up in flames.

Correspondent Scott Pelley updates a report that originally aired in March.

We know how the fire started.

Pyrotechnics, with explosives much too large for the room, ignited highly flammable packing foam that doubled as sound proofing.

With nothing to stop it, or even slow it, the inferno overwhelmed the crowd.

"It had to be very hot, very fast. And these people had to know that they were burning alive in there," says Chief Jack Chartier, who along with Capt. Peter Ginaitt and Capt. Leo Kennedy, were among the first to face the people pouring out of club.

Ninety seconds after the fire started, there's the sound of windows smashing. Ten seconds later, there's the terrible sight at the front door.

"There were bodies stacked in the doorway, pretty high, arms outstretched," says Kennedy.

It was a human wall, blocking escape.

One of the people in that crush near the door was Tammy Passa. She says smoke plunged the club into total darkness as she was swept up by the crowd.

"I thought I was going to die in there. I refused to die in there," says Passa.

Within three minutes, there was almost no air to breathe. Tim Rossano remembers crawling until he found a window to jump through. "The one thing I'll never forget, is the screams from the people. You knew that they were screaming for their lives."

The screaming would end in minutes, as the building burned to the ground with nearly 100 people inside.

"In three minutes, 4,000 years of life expectancy of wonderful young people, were extinguished not because of two boneheads, the pyrotechnics, but because of a lack of care by our society to do something," says Stanley Chesley, a lawyer who's been in the middle of the biggest fire cases in U.S. history — disasters in buildings without sprinklers.

"This is proven technology that's been available and cheap for over 100 years," says Chesley, who believes sprinkers would have saved those lives.

In 1977, there were no sprinklers in the Beverly Hills supper club in Kentucky, where 165 were killed. Three years later, 87 people died at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. There were no sprinklers in the upper floors of the resort hotel.

Chesley sued for victims in both fires. And now, he sees the same pattern in Rhode Island. The club didn't have sprinklers because it was built long before they were required.

But if the sprinklers had been installed in Rhode Island, what does Chesley imagine the outcome would have been?

"It would have been a very localized fire. And there would have been one local spot where it had caught fire up in the timbers. That's where the sprinklers are. They would have gone off and extinguished it. End of story," he says. "Oh, people would have gotten wet. The furniture might have gotten ruined. But so what?"

Is he right? Three days before the Rhode Island fire, there was a nightclub fire you didn't hear about in Minneapolis. There were pyrotechnics on stage, an inferno in the ceiling and 150 people inside. But no one was hurt. The club had sprinklers.

But even today, Rhode Island does not require sprinklers in clubs that hold 300 people or fewer. And it's not just Rhode Island. It turns out that the 300 person exemption is common in much of the country.

Where did the "300 Rule" come from? It is widely adopted, partly because it is found in one of the bibles of fire codes written by the National Fire Protection Association.

The NFPA was started more than 100 years ago by fire officials and insurance companies. Today, it has thousands of members that also include building owners, contractors, architects, sports promoters and churches -- anyone interested in how buildings are built and how much they cost.

The NFPA codes fill volumes with standards for everything from high rise evacuations to safely serving flaming crepes suzettes. And, in the middle of it all, the code that requires sprinklers only in clubs with more than 300 patrons.

How did the NFPA come up with the idea that it's okay to leave 300 people in a building without sprinklers but 301 is too many?

"Our codes are written by committees of experts who are drawn from all over the country, and they determine what the appropriate thresholds are what the appropriate provisions are," says Jim Shannon, president of the NFPA.

Shannon says he doesn't know the technical justification for the "300 Rule." So 60 Minutes II went to one of those experts he mentioned.

Jakes Pauls is an expert in building safety who pushes for tougher standards at the NFPA. He sits on the committee that set the standard.

"There isn't a scientific study that says 300 is what we need," says Pauls. "In fact, the whole field of building safety, there's a dearth of science and technology there."

"We hope that what we do goes slightly beyond that. In other words, we're not throwing darts at a wall and arbitrarily choosing numbers. They're judgment calls."

No one at NFPA could cite a study that supports the "300 Rule." But they told us it appears to be based on the idea that a building holding 300 is considered small so people, in theory, can get out.

Here are some NFPA statistics: In homes, sprinklers lower deaths by 75 percent and sprinklers lower deaths by 91 percent in hotels. In fact, the NFPA even did a study that looked at nine years of fires in assembly type buildings -- and no one was ever killed in a building that had sprinklers.

"We support sprinklers," says Shannon, who sticks close to the NFPA message that the code works and other violations were responsible for the Rhode Island fire. "I think it is important that we look at all elements of fire safety when we're devising our codes and that's what we do."

"NFPA is a big advocate of sprinklers and wherever the people who sit on our code committees, the experts, feel that sprinklers are required, we require them," adds Shannon.

However, a few local jurisdictions and local fire departments believe that the "300 Rule" is not adequate. Floyd Jordan, the fire chief in Miami Beach, worries about the 60 nightclubs in his town.

"We have to enforce the code," says Jordan. "We cannot require sprinklers where the code does not say you have to require sprinklers."

Miami Beach follows the NFPA code and the "300 Rule" for clubs. But Jordan doesn't stop there with security measures.

To make up for the lack of sprinklers in some clubs, Jordan enforces what may be the toughest inspection program in the nation. Fire inspectors check every club, every weekend. They also check the number of patrons. When there are too many people, they bar the door. One club even boasts a floor covered in real grass -- so the inspectors make sure the lawn is well tended.

The inspections may be thorough, but Jordan would like to see something more. He believes that there would have been very little -- or perhaps no loss of life if there had been a sprinkler system in the Rhode Island club.

"If certain fire safety systems were in that building, there is a realization probably there would not have been a single loss of life," says Jordan, who believes it's time to change the fire code. "Basically what I'm talking about are sprinker systems."

What's changed since 60 Minutes II first reported this story in March?

In Rhode Island, the scene of The Station fire, the governor is set to sign tough new fire codes dumping the "300 Rule" and requiring sprinklers in most nightclubs.

As for the rest of the nation, the International Fire Marshal's Association asked the NFPA to require sprinkers in all nightclubs. The NFPA voted against it, but it plans to take up the issue again later this summer.