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Cities, states beef up inspections of nightclubs

©Associated Press
February 23, 2003

Two nightclub tragedies in which 117 people were trampled or burned to death in the span of a week have cities across the nation rewriting old fire and building codes and demanding immediate inspections to head off more disasters.

Less than a day after a band's fireworks turned a small Rhode Island club into a raging inferno that killed nearly a third of the crowd, the governor of neighboring Massachusetts mobilized a task force to begin immediate, unannounced inspections of every nightclub in the state.

In Nashville, the country music capital, officials began spot checks to confirm that nightclubs had unlocked exits and that those using fireworks had fire inspectors to supervise their use. And in the District of Columbia, Mayor Anthony Williams told aides to inspect clubs and meet with owners to ensure they meet building codes.

Just days before the Rhode Island blaze, officials in Chicago were discussing requiring clubs to install panic bars, the push bars commonly found on movie theater doors, after a deadly stampede early Monday at the city's E2 nightclub.

Tragedies like the stampede and Thursday night's fire at the Station in West Warwick, R.I., often spur quick criticism of security and fire code changes.

In 1995, the state of Maine began regulating indoor fireworks after four people were hospitalized because a "flash pot" exploded at Portland, Maine's T-Birds nightclub.

Los Angeles, which has thousands of clubs, hotels and restaurants, has never had a deadly nightclub fire, but it has learned from disasters elsewhere, Fire Department spokesman Brian Humphrey said.

After a 1942 blaze in Boston killed 492 trapped inside the Cocoanut Grove club, city leaders in Los Angeles passed a law requiring panic bars on nightclub doors. It now has one of the strictest fire safety codes in the world.

"Every single line in that code is the result of a disaster," Humphrey said.

More than 130 Los Angeles inspectors monitor public venues in a 470-square-mile area. "I can't think of one that hasn't had a fire violation," Humphrey said, though most have been minor: "A light bulb burned out in an exit sign, or a laundry bag blocking an exit."

Because of terrorism concerns, inspectors were focusing on Sunset Boulevard nightclubs in West Hollywood, Calif.

"This is a hot spot that everybody in the world wants to come to . . . the stars do hang out in this town," said Los Angeles County fire Capt. Stanley Perkins.

He advised people going to clubs to make sure they find a second exit even before they have their first drink. "If you feel unsafe in a club, leave," Perkins said. "Just turn around and walk out. Ask for your money back. Too crowded."

Nightspots in the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak, Mich., are required to notify customers of every exit before any show.

Pittsburgh law requires the city be officially informed before any open flame is used on stage, even one as small as an actor's cigarette. A city fire inspector has to be backstage, armed with a radio and a fire extinguisher, said city Fire Bureau Chief Peter Micheli.

"If there is a problem, he has the authority to stop the show at a minute's notice," the chief said.

Overhead sprinklers -- a safety measure that wasn't required and wasn't present in the Rhode Island club -- are required in New York public venues accommodating 100 people or more.

On Saturday, Connecticut lawmakers, following neighboring Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, announced top police and fire officials in their state would be called to the Capitol this week to review state laws regulating nightclubs and pyrotechnics.

Missouri state Fire Marshal Bill Farr said he hopes the Rhode Island blaze raises awareness of the need for safety regulations. Missouri has no fire code for privately owned buildings, although larger cities such as St. Louis and Kansas City have them.

"It's always a shame to get anything done in the United States as far as code adoption, it takes large life loss," Farr said.

Previous fires

-- 492 dead, Cocoanut Grove club, Boston, Nov. 28, 1942.

-- 198 dead, Rhythm Night Club dance hall in Natchez, Miss., April 23, 1940.

-- 165 dead, Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Ky., May 28, 1977.

-- 87 dead, Happy Land Social Club in New York City, March 25, 1990.

-- 40 dead, dance hall in West Plains, Mo., April 13, 1928.

-- 32 dead, Upstairs Bar in New Orleans, June 24, 1973.

-- 25 dead, Puerto Rican Social Club in New York City, Oct. 24, 1976.

-- 24 dead, Gulliver's Discotheque in Port Chester, N.Y., June 30, 1974.

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