Lost in the flames

February 22, 2003|By SUN STAFF

HOW CAN WE fathom the stupidity that was required to set a Rhode Island nightclub on fire, killing at least 95 people? Low ceilings, a touring band unfamiliar with the place, a packed dance floor - and someone actually thought fireworks was a good idea? Does this set some sort of new Olympic standard for negligence?

The horrible truth is that the devastating fire at The Station in West Warwick, R.I., was - through and through - the consequence of ordinary human nature.

People enjoy crowds. Not everyone, and not all the time, but often enough, and it's particularly true for younger men and women.

People enjoy the physical delights of sound and sight. Flying sparks! Oooooooh!

People draw false conclusions, as the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters have so graphically shown. If something doesn't lead to a problem the first time it happens, we assume that it never will. Insulating foam fell off the Columbia nose cone on previous launches, and nothing went amiss, so engineers decided there was no need to worry about it.

Similarly, the band Great White had used pyrotechnics in its act before, harmlessly, so clearly there must not be a danger.

Disastrously wrong, on both counts.

People are slow to react. This can't be happening. This can't be happening to me. This must be part of the show.

People panic. This comes next. There is little that is so horrifying as a crowd in a panic. The panic is infectious and nearly irresistible. Common sense vanishes. The stampede is on.

It's just human nature.

Disaster after disaster has one or more of these elements.

In just the past week alone: The Chicago nightclub had the crowds and the panic, and 21 died. The South Korean subway trains had a man fascinated by fire and crews slow to react, and more than 125 died.

But The Station had it all - crowds, dangerous spectacle, illogic, disbelief, panic.

We pass laws to try to hem in human nature. They can be effective, where they're enforced, though the United States is a country where even the laws vary widely from one locale to the next. The Station didn't have sprinklers, but the fire code in West Warwick didn't require them. Rhode Island regulates fireworks - as do most of the states, each in its own way.

Great White, on tour, evidently didn't pay much attention to the finer points of the permit process - if club owners in New Jersey and Rhode Island can be believed - and who, among those who went to hear the band on Thursday night in West Warwick, thought to wonder about that ahead of time?

Imagine the anguish of the families of those who died. No one heading out to a nightclub for a good time feels vulnerable. What crazy confluence of bad ideas and bad luck had to come together to create this deadly storm of flame and panic? Why on this night, and in this place?

In the days and weeks to come, investigators will pick through all the evidence and blame will be assessed. A torrent of misfortune will be reduced to a fire marshal's report and, perhaps, a criminal indictment. There may very well be new legislation, not only in Rhode Island but across the country. Every city and county would do well to re-examine the hazards of crowding and fire.

But that can take us only so far. You can't legislate away all risk, and you can't outlaw stupidity. And then there's human nature: It always kicks in again when things go wrong. No law on Earth can halt a rush to the door.

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