Tuesday, March 04, 2003

The Rhode Island nightclub fire – silence = death

In October 2002, terrorists – including at least one suicide bomber – deliberately killed 188 people in Bali. The nightclub in which most of the victims died was a thatched roof affair in a high-walled compound, with no exit other than its narrow front door entrance.

In February 2003, pyrotechnics accidentally ignited a fire in a Rhode Island nightclub, killing 98 people. In a building that was ostensibly fire compliant, the body count is of such a magnitude that terrorists worldwide must surely be envious. A lazy spark was all it took – or so it seems.

There is no question that pyrotechnics were indeed the fuse here. Were they also, however, the bomb? If five or ten people had been killed in the ensuing fire, I think that this would be a reasonable enough line of inquiry. With such a high death toll, however, the ripples of blame and causation must go much wider – the pyrotechnics were the fuse, but possibly no more than that.

In my opinion, the “bomb” was the highly flammable polyurethane foam that was placed on the walls shortly after the current owners bought the nightclub in 2000, apparently after neighbours complained about noise. Meanwhile, (i) the current owners did not know the foam was highly flammable, and thus was obviously unsuitable as nightclub sound insulation, (ii) the foam’s supplier did not know the use to which the foam was going to be put, and (iii) the relevant authorities did not notice the foam in their two regular annual inspections after the foam was installed.

Who is to blame? The easiest, most tangible blame rests with the inspecting authorities. Their negligence is, on one hand, of stupendous magnitude. On the other hand, with fire inspection – like so much else these days – being a formalised, “tick the box” process, it is unlikely that the inspectors would have been looking for such a blatant, all-surrounding fire hazard. It is possible, then not to see a “fire trap” for the foam.

In all this blame-throwing circle of denial and ignorance, two special mentions should be made. One for the residents (baby boomers, I assume) who complained about the noise coming from a pre-existing (it would seem) nightclub – and got the results they wanted, all served up on a platter (but just don’t ask what went on behind the scenes here, mind). I hope that you all sleep okay now, folks.

And for the younger generation of nightclub patrons, at least some of whom would have had basic chemistry knowledge about the flammability of polyurethane foam and regularly noticed the reams of it everywhere as they danced . . . and never said anything – your silence has finally, belatedly, posthumously been noticed.

Message to a generation – if you don’t start complaining soon, complaining continuously and loudly until every rasping baby boomer has been finally made to shut up, then you will die.

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