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Nightclub Disasters Are a Familiar Tragedy

There are new hazards these days, including rock bands' pyrotechnics, and new triggers for panic, notably fear of terrorism. But there is nothing new about nightclubs and dance halls turning swiftly into disaster zones.

This week's calamities at nightclubs in Chicago and West Warwick, R.I., killing more than 100 people, were the latest in a long list, prompting experts to reflect on the shifting challenges involved in keeping such crowded and boisterous places safe.

"This is the Cocoanut Grove, the Kentucky supper club fire," said Garry Briese, executive director of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, referring to nightclub fires that killed 491 people in Boston in 1942 and 164 in Southgate, Ky., in 1977.

"The tragedy here," Briese said, "is that there's nothing new."

Building and fire codes are not consistent across the country, with some set by the state and others by local governments. In many cases, Briese said, jurisdictions have difficulty enforcing the codes as building owners make sudden changes, draw larger-than-approved crowds or pressure authorities for exemptions.

"It's about politics and money," Briese said. "There's a constant struggle between protecting the public versus the desire to make money — that's the reality of the world."

Often, dangers arise when a club owner makes a change in a building's design or function — for example, allowing a relatively small nightclub to accommodate many hundreds of young people at an all-night rave.

"You can have a situation where an inspection gets done, a place meets the code, then something new gets introduced," said Gary Keith, vice president of regional operations for the National Fire Protection Association. "You have to be on guard constantly."

Capt. Dan Kemp, who works in the fire marshal's office in Detroit, said venues that cater to crowds need to be designed to cope with mass panic.

If there's a fire alarm, "you can count on the fact that there will be panic," Kemp said. "You have to build a building to accommodate that type of situation — make sure the doors are open and people can see where the doors are."

Charles Figley, a psychologist at Florida State University who has studied disasters and traumatic stress, said people in crowds may be more quick to panic and stampede since the Sept. 11 attacks gave rise to terrorism-related anxieties.

"People are already on edge, and they're waiting for the other shoe to drop," he said. "This is particularly true when we're in an environment with people we don't know."

Safety experts said there are few good options for people caught in a panicked crowd; the best advice, they said, is to avoid getting into a stampede in the first place.

"People need to take ownership of their safety," said Division Chief Theodore Saunders of the Baltimore Fire Department. "Look around, identify where the exits are."

Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Harold Hairston said nightclub and theater patrons should not only formulate an exit plan but also be prepared to telephone authorities if they see something at the venue that looks unsafe. He said his department is ready to dispatch inspectors for spot checks.

Gary Keith urged people to react swiftly if they sense something is amiss.

"If it doesn't feel right, it probably isn't right," he said. "Move toward the exit immediately, in an orderly fashion. You can always come back in later."

The 1942 Cocoanut Grove fire helped build pressure for enactment of some of fire safety regulations still in force today — including requirements for sprinkler systems and accessible exits with emergency lights not linked to the regular lighting system. The nightclub that burned in West Warwick was not large enough to require sprinklers.

The deadly stampede at Chicago's E2 nightclub ensued after pepper spray was used to break up a scuffle. A similar use of pepper spray at a tavern in Pullman, Wash., last September also prompted a stampede, but hundreds of patrons were able to escape unharmed through an unlocked back door.

After that incident, authorities inspected Pullman's taverns to make sure they complied with safety codes, but Fire Prevention Officer Richard Dragoo said a tragedy could still happen.

"When you get a thousand bodies in a place, you're going to have congestion," He said. "When you get a panic situation, I don't care what place you're in, you're going to have injuries."