TOPICS > Politics

Deadly Fire in Rhode Island

February 21, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: And I’m joined from just across the street from the wreckage of the station nightclub in West Warwick by Chris Rowland of the Boston Globe. He’s been on the scene since late last night.

Chris, how high is the confirmed death toll at this hour?

CHRIS ROWLAND: The latest figure is 95 people dead.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, that’s risen in a horrifying way since this morning when they were talking about the mid-50s. Where are those added numbers coming from? Are these people who were injured in the fire, who are succumbing to their wounds or people that they’re finding in the rubble?

CHRIS ROWLAND: It’s people they’re finding. I think that their original estimates were low, based on, I think reports from the club owners how many people were there. Their latest estimates now actually put the total number in the club at the time of the fire at 350. That’s sort of a new wrinkle because that’s 50 more than the allowable occupancy.

RAY SUAREZ: Are there a lot of injuries still in the hospital?

CHRIS ROWLAND: There are still eighty-one people in hospitals, ten in Massachusetts, seventy-one in Rhode Island, and twenty-five of the people who are hospitalized are in critical condition.

RAY SUAREZ: How about missing people? I understand during the day, a lot of people have been coming to the scene, a lot of people have been trying to find out from police where family members are. Is there any way to help them out?

CHRIS ROWLAND: It’s been really a sad, sad thing to see people coming here looking for their loved ones and wondering, you know, about them. They’ve gone to hospitals. They have the… the hospitals have lists of everybody who is in the hospitals. Family members have shown up here without luck and having no luck at the hospitals, and really in tears.

RAY SUAREZ: Tell us about the scene there. There have been a lot of pictures on television during the day of a blazing building, but now it looks like there is almost no building left.

CHRIS ROWLAND: Yeah, when I got here this morning at 2:00, the building was pretty much destroyed. The fire was raging inferno that swept the building in a matter of three minutes. So today they’ve slowly taken the remains of the building apart as they uncovered bodies. They found about 25 bodies near the front door where people were trying to get out. And they’ve also found a number of bodies in the restrooms where people apparently tried to take refuge.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s interesting that there exists such good pictures of the early stages of all of this. It seems that a Rhode Island TV station was trying to localize the story of the Chicago nightclub tragedy from earlier, and just happened to be there when all of this started.

CHRIS ROWLAND: Yeah, the fire officials are using that tape as part of their investigation. It turns out that a local TV reporter here is part owner of this club, and he was working on… they had access to the club for their cameras. They were talking about the whole Chicago debate, the club safety in the wake of the Chicago tragedy. And we ended up with one here, too.

RAY SUAREZ: So I guess investigators have been able to put together a pretty good chain of events of how this all came about and how so many people ended up being killed.

CHRIS ROWLAND: Yeah, they can see how quickly the fire spread, how people had trouble getting out; how the fire started with these pyrotechnic devices that were on the stage that caught on to some Styrofoam soundproofing on the back wall. Witnesses described really thick black smoke that was pouring through the building at a really rapid rate. People were just overcome. I talked to one guy who smashed a window to get out in desperation when he saw that the exits were blocked. It’s really a horrific scene of people catching on fire and dying of either burns or smoke inhalation.

RAY SUAREZ: One thing you don’t see in those pictures is water streaming out of the ceiling. How come there were no sprinklers in that building?

CHRIS ROWLAND: This building was built in the late 1950s or early 1960s before sprinklers were required. So therefore according to the fire officials, it was grandfathered in, which is a way of saying they didn’t have to put in sprinklers unless they did some major renovations or something. They never did. The building is pretty much in its original state. And so they were allowed to have a nightclub with 350 people jammed in there with no sprinklers.

RAY SUAREZ: But as far as you know, the building was up to code at the time of the fire?

CHRIS ROWLAND: The building… yes it was. It had just gone through an inspection about two months ago. It had a couple of minor things they took care of, but really the big focus of the investigation here is that they had no permits for these pyrotechnic devices. They had not gone to the state fire marshal to get their license to operate these or to light these things off, and they had also not gone to the town of West Warwick and received the appropriate permit. Therefore that’s the focus of the attorney general’s investigation at this point as to, you know, why they didn’t have that and what could ultimately become part of a criminal probe.

RAY SUAREZ: Is there a difference of opinion? The band said it let the club know they were going to set off the fireworks, have these showers of sparks coming from the stage.

CHRIS ROWLAND: Yeah, the band is sort of pointing the finger at the owner saying they should have known they had a flammable substance on their walls. The owners are saying that they were never notified that these pyrotechnic devices were going to be lit. And the attorney general is saying he’s investigating everybody. No one is off the hook here.

RAY SUAREZ: And are there a lot of people who may still be in danger of dying at this point?

CHRIS ROWLAND: Well, I’m not too sure. There are 25 people who are in critical condition with really severe burns. I mean many people had second and third degree burns. And I would say that they are in danger of, if they’re in critical condition. I’m not sure – to tell you the truth — about the hospital angle at this point. I’ve been here for 16 hours at the scene.

RAY SUAREZ: Do they expect to find many more people at the site?

CHRIS ROWLAND: No, I think that they think that there may be a few left, but mostly they think they have gotten the full number in the extent of the investigation. Now they’re starting to turn some of the their focus into digging through the rubble in terms of looking for evidence as opposed to recovering bodies at this point.

RAY SUAREZ: Chris Rowland from the Boston Globe, thanks a lot.

CHRIS ROWLAND: You’re welcome.