Dousing Nightclub Risk

On stage, the band was just starting to play. The nightclub, which was famous in New England for its star performances, was packed - too packed, many people would say later.

Suddenly, a blaze swept the room and revelry turned to panic. With too few exits and no ceiling sprinklers, dozens and dozens of people died. The national tragedy quickly led to calls for stiffer safety measures in public buildings that draw big crowds.

Those two paragraphs could well have been written just after last Thursday's fire at a nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island, that killed 96, injured 187, and left many families grieving.

Unfortunately, the same story could also have been written in 1942, after a huge fire at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston. That famous catastrophe of 61 years ago left 492 people dead, and triggered a national campaign to improve fire and safety codes, and to heighten enforcement of those codes, especially in clubs.

While such changes have helped avert many similar tragedies, obviously the nation still has much to learn. The fire at the Rhode Island club occurred just a few days after 21 people died in a stampede at a Chicago nightclub, after guards sprayed stinging gas into a crowd to break up a fight.

Such tragedies often have specific causes. But each tragedy can provide lessons to prevent similar ones. In the Rhode Island case, it's now obvious that no club should allow fireworks onstage in a wooden structure with low, flammable ceilings. Official investigations will likely bring out more lessons.

In general, however, nightclubs seem loaded with risk. Perhaps people who are partying to music at night too often are oblivious to safety measures, such as avoiding overcrowding and memorizing the location of exits. Or they are especially susceptible to panic, and flee dangerously. Then, too, the use of drugs and alcohol can impair the judgment needed to avoid risks.

Each disaster awakens the need for more diligence by everyone, from club-hoppers to local building inspectors. Safety codes can go only so far. Local officials should be as careful in making sure existing codes are followed as they are now in trying to prevent acts of terrorism. And law- enforcement officials should be tough in punishing those convicted in such tragedies, especially any club owners who would put profits above safety.

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