by Christopher Chwedyk
On January 26, 235 people were killed in a nightclub fire in Santa Maria, Brazil. Most of the dead were college students 18 to 21 years old. According to the Associated Press report, the Kiss nightclub was overcrowded with over 1,000 people and the building had no fire alarm, no sprinklers, and no fire escapes. When a performing band member tried to put out the fire that had been started by pyrotechnics, the extinguisher did not work.
Many in the press were quick to blame the shortcomings of Brazil’s regulatory structure – administrative flaws, inspection flaws, and ignorance of existing building code violations. Reporters raised questions about the ability of Brazilian authorities to be up to the task of ensuring the safety of those attending next year’s World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.
This February, we marked the tenth anniversary of the Station Nightclub fire in West Warrick, RI and the E2 Nightclub deaths in Chicago. These tragedies share striking similarities with the recent deaths in Brazil, such as overcrowded conditions, blocked exits, and toxic fumes. Both the Kiss and the Station nightclub had ceilings covered in sound-insulating foam made from combustible material that ignited with the pyrotechnics. In all three incidents, most of the victims died of asphyxiation.
Three different cities; three very similar incidents, resulting in death. We can compare the various event details to those as far back as Boston’s Cocoanut Grove fire in 1942 that killed more than 400 people in a very similar fashion. It was, in fact, the Coconut Grove nightclub fire that led to the establishment of what later became the NFPA Life Safety Code, now followed in all 50 states and in many parts of the world. We think that we learn from our mistakes, and put in place laws and ordinances to prevent such catastrophes, yet they are often repeated needlessly.
One such proposed solution to learn from past mistakes would be to install fire suppression systems in most existing buildings, as is already advocated in many codes for new buildings. Shortly after the Station Nightclub fire, members of Congress introduced the Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act to financially assist building owners in retrofitting their properties with fire sprinklers using tax incentives. Between then and now, according to the Congressional Fire Services Institute, fires in the United States have killed nearly 30,000, injured almost 100,000, and caused countless billions of dollars in property damage. Ten years later, Congress has failed to pass the Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act.
Sprinklers, of course, would not have prevented the E2 Nightclub deaths. In fact, the problem is not just with poor regulation or lack of enforcement, it is about a cultural willingness to look the other way. We see it in the attitude of those in the construction industry dealing with the imposition of laws and rules they do not understand or fail to appreciate. How many times do we hear people complain that they are being forced to comply with a regulation when many others do not comply and never get caught? We see it in the current debate regarding gun violence and the potential loss of perceived freedom verses the death of the innocent. We also see it in the issues surrounding climate change and protecting the environment. The clock is ticking toward a time when our abuse of the Earth may become irreversible, yet it is easier to look the other way and keep repeating mistakes than dealing with the more difficult task of learning from those mistakes and doing things differently.
Building codes are, in general, a reaction to and a direct result of tragedies. They exist to protect the health, safety and welfare of human beings. We need to understand them, appreciate them, and yes, even abide by them willingly, with the understanding that without all three of those actions, we are likely to repeat the mistakes of the past.