20 years after the Station Nightclub fire: how did it get so deadly?

20 years after the Station Nightclub fire: how did it get so deadly?

20 years ago on 20 February 2003, the Station nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island went up in flames, killing 100 people and injuring another 230, including one of the club’s owners. This disaster was one of the worst in its kind in modern times, and what makes it tangible is that there is a lot of footage of the drama that took place. A reconstruction of what happened that night can be found on Wikipedia. We look back at how this tragedy got so deadly and what happened in the aftermath in terms of learning and the prevention of similar disasters in the future.

How could it get so deadly?

The Station Nightclub fire is one of the deadliest nightclub fires in modern times. The reason seems to be the combination of multiple factors that all contributed to the disaster.

The direct cause of the fire was the fact that 1) pyrotechnics used by the heavy metal band on stage ignited a fire in walls and ceiling, that 2) consisted of flammable foam that was used for acoustic reasons, so the fire spread out very quickly. Within 90 seconds after ignition, smoke had spread along the ceiling and banked down closely to the floor. 

But the high number of fatalities had more causes. 3) The venue did not have sprinklers that could have quickly put out the fire (and was not obliged to). 4) Alarms inside the venue went off in 40 seconds, but they were not connected to the local fire station, delaying direct response. 5) The venue was overcrowded. It had a maximum licensed capacity of 404 but that evening, 462 people were inside. 6) Emergency exits were limited. One of the exit doors turned inside instead of outside. 7) Patrons mainly tried to escape through the main entrance, which was only 36 Inch (90 cm) wide (it was narrowed down to prevent patrons with no ticket from sneaking in during ingress). 8) The venue operators failed in leading the evacuation of patrons through other emergency exits and 9) Security even blocked one exit for patrons, stating this door was only to be used for the band and its team. Footage shows patrons piled up in the front door, many not able to escape and dying from smoke inhalation or compressive asphyxia.

Blame and accountability

In the aftermath, fingers were pointed at three responsible parties: 1) the band and its management, for using pyrotechnics that sparked the fire, 2) the club owners, for the use of the highly flammable foam in the walls and for letting too many people in, and 3) the town fire inspector, for not noticing the foam during his inspections of the premises. The lack of adequate response of security also played an important role. Police comments wrongly spoke of a stampede, indirectly blaming the crowd for its behaviour to try to get to safety. Lawsuits led to a total amount of $176 million being paid by the band, the tour manager, the remaining club owner, the fire inspector, and the town of West Warwick to those who were injured and the families of those who died.

Design, information, management

When trying to understand and prevent crowd related incidents, we use models like the DIM ICE risk analysis model. This model requires a separate analysis of the phases of ingress, circulation, and egress, and for every phase, the adequacy of the design, information and management are assessed, both for normal conditions and for emergencies. When putting this tragedy in terms of design, information, and management, it becomes apparent that all these factors were involved. Design: the lack of available emergency exits, especially in relation to the number of patrons inside; Information: partly because of the quick spread of smoke and fire, many patrons were not in the position to notice other emergency exits; Management: the choice to narrow down the entrance, the blocking of an emergency exit by security and lacking to lead the evacuation to other exit doors all contributed to the disaster.


The role the media play after high-impact incidents like this one is often described as provocative and blood-thirsty, hungering to take responsible public figures down. Although this can be true, the media can also play an important role in thorough fact-finding and holding responsible stakeholders accountable for their actions. This is necessary when all those directly involved have an interest in keeping information away from the public.

In this case, media played an important role in terms of learning and accountability. By coincidence, a cameraman for WPRI-TV was there on the evening of the tragedy, making a report on nightclub safety. This piece was made because of another night club fire that happened just 3 days earlier at the E2 nightclub in Chicago. He personally witnessed what happened. His observations: “At first, there was no panic. Everybody just kind of turned. (…) Well, I guess once we all started to turn toward the door, and we got bottle-necked into the front door, people just kept pushing, and eventually everybody just popped out of the door including myself. (…) There was no one coming out the back door anymore. (…) I went back around the front again, and that’s when you saw people stacked up on top of each other, trying to get out of the front door. And by then, the black smoke was pouring over their heads.”

The Providence Journal, a regional newspaper, also played an important part in keeping focus on accountability, by doing a story about the fire every day. More recently, Providence Journal has kept writing about the developments around the case, like stating that both club owners were doing a ‘white-wash tour’ about the fire in 2021.

The Station was exempt from a sprinkler requirement in the state fire code, having been built before 1976. A computer simulation showed a sprinkler system would have enabled everyone to exit safely. After the disaster, Rhode Island changed its fire codes to a modern-day code more easily understood. All venues with a capacity of 150 attendees and above are now are required to have sprinklers. Providence Journal points to the fact that just changing the codes is not enough: “Too often, the crucial task of inspecting buildings in search of potentially life-threatening fire hazards falls to just one person.” The use of sprinklers should be less costly, according to the Journal. The national standard “Life Safety Code” NFPA 101 code was changed and now also requires additional crowd management personnel. This and other similar incident also let to the requirement of having trained crowd managers among fire chiefs, fire marshalls and inspectors.

Sources: Providence Journal, Wikipedia, Paul Wertheimer. Special thanks go out to Paul for explaining causes and patterns in crowd related disasters like the Station nightclub fire.

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