Playing with fire

Nightclub tragedy sparks new look at show-biz stunts, packed clubs, and the line between thrill and danger

If Gregory Tameleo hadn't decided to take one more cruise around his neighborhood, he too might have been caught inside the inferno that has become one of the worst nightclub accidents in US history.

Instead, after the extra lap around this working-class neighborhood Thursday night, the Rhode Island resident pulled into the parking lot across from the Station - as he'd done so many nights before - only to confront chaos and catastrophe.

Now this 20-something casino worker who wears dog tags and a stud in his tongue is puzzling over how anyone could use pyrotechnics in a one-story wooden structure with low ceilings. "That place is way too small for even a high-flame cigarette lighter" - let alone a spark-spewing fireworks show, he says.

How such logic eluded those at the Station isn't yet clear and will likely be the subject of endless investigations and lawsuits. But the incident, in which 96 people were killed and which comes so soon after a nightclub tragedy in Chicago, is shining a harsh light on a unique piece of American culture that is full of exuberance, pop culture - and occasionally crime and tragedy.

Indeed, in the wake of the Rhode Island disaster in particular, authorities across the nation are suddenly conducting surprise checks on exits, reviewing basic fire codes, and engaging in a deeper introspection about why a nation needs to resort to gun powder and spark showers to entertain its youth. As the look into this world of decibels and hyperactive hips intensifies, authorities have already been making some sobering discoveries:

• Pyrotechnic displays by bands in Minneapolis have started three fires in the past two years - including one just last week. No one was hurt.

• In Miami Beach, one of the hottest club cities, reports indicate inspectors have issued seven citations for locked or blocked exits and 18 for overcrowding to 21 clubs in the past year.

• Despite the recent tragedy in Chicago, fire inspectors report finding several locked or blocked doors in the 17 clubs they visited just this past Friday night.

"We think we have it all figured out - but then it turns out we don't," says Minneapolis Fire Marshal Tom Deegan. Even in his city, where club-related incidents are down, it's clear that, "we have a lot of work to do."

Proliferation of clubs

One challenge for authorities in policing such establishments is the sheer proliferation of night clubs. While no numbers exist, those who follow the scene say more are springing up in large cities as well as in smaller towns.

These include the emergence of the "superclub" - places that have become virtual theme parks, with restaurants, lounges, and different clubs within a club.

"The idea is to have something that is going to make a wide variety of people happy," says Michael Harrelson, editor of Nightclub and Bar, a monthly trade publication based in Oxford, Miss.

Most nightclubs feature a blend of darkness, cheek-by-jowl crowds, alcohol, and occasionally drugs. While most operate safely and without incident, the deliberately wild atmosphere of some clubs can lead to chaos and tragedy when a fight breaks out or an accident occurs.

Experts note, too, that society's broader push for extreme entertainment is adding to the dangers. Even bands in small-time clubs are now trying to please crowds by staging dramatic effects - everything from levitating drums to pyrotechnics.

In the Rhode Island incident, which was eerily captured on video tape, the loud music and sparks initially gave the exulting crowd the sense that, "Here is a place where we lose control," says cultural observer Robert Thompson of Syracuse University.

"A lot of people, when they go to these performances, through ingesting alcohol and other things, through the volume and the proximity of other people, are in an altered state" - one that makes them less able to react rationally, he adds.

Of course, the Rhode Island blaze also engulfed the nightclub in a matter of minutes - a scenario that could have proved tragic in a crowded church as easily as a club.

Brandon Fravala knows that first hand. He was one of the last people to be rescued from the Station, pulled from beneath a pile of bodies by a police officer. "You couldn't even see two inches in front of you, that's how much smoke there was," he says, still shaken.

In Chicago, the chaos sparked by guards using pepper spray to break up a fight was compounded by fears that it was a gas or terrorist attack. In the stampede to escape an ultimately harmless threat, 21 were killed.

The incident last week in Minneapolis shows that potential disasters don't always turn out to be disasters. Soon after the band Jet City Fix began its show in the Fine Line Music Cafe, a pyrotechnics display sparked a fire. Despite $1.5 million damage to the club, local authorities say good training on the part of the cafe staff and wide-open exits helped to produce an ordered evacuation.

Still, the incident did raise concerns: For one thing, fireworks displays by bands are illegal in Minneapolis.

More and more bands do seem determined to incorporate a bit of the Fourth of July into their performances. What started in the 1970s as a showy tool used by bands like KISS has morphed into a near-necessity for many groups - everyone from Boyz II Men to lesser-known bands like Weezer and the Damned.

"Now almost everybody wants to use it," says veteran concert promoter Barry Fey, even though "the bands with any real talent don't need the stuff."

Give me glitz

Yet high-glitz entertainment is part of what many fans crave. Standing in Vision, a Chicago club, Sandra McGrath says the nightclub culture creates an excitement that isn't available in her hometown of Ottawa, Ill., two hours away. She knows there are risks, but figures it's worth it.

Maggie Tudryn agrees. A college student clubbing at New York's Plant Bar, she doesn't worry about the dangers but has come up with her own way to be safe, nonetheless. "I usually come with friends, and we look out for each other," she says.

That's probably a wise thing, because critics say clubbers can't count on all owners to protect them. Clubs operate in a particularly competitive and fickle industry, and safety precautions - sprinklers, exit lighting, trained staff - can be expensive.

Consider just occupancy limits. They're typically based on allowing just one person for every seven square feet of floor space. Doubling or tripling that ratio boosts the intake for a club - and ratchets up buzz and energy. Even unlocked doors can exact a cost, since they could allow people to sneak in without paying.

Yet inadequate safety precautions can cost dearly. The owners in Chicago and Rhode Island could be criminally prosecuted - and already face huge lawsuits. In Rhode Island, the probe is focusing on whether the club's owners gave the band permission to use fireworks. The owners say they didn't. The band says they did.

Unannounced patrons

But authorities are stepping up enforcement, regardless. Massachusetts has begun unannounced inspections of every club in the state. The Detroit suburb of Royal Oak, Mich., now requires staffers to notify clubbers of all exits before a show starts.

Yet consistent enforcement requires a degree of independence. Many clubs attract star-powered clientele and are owned by politically connected business people.

That doesn't matter to Capt. Stanley Perkins, a fire-prevention officer who oversees club-rich West Hollywood. "We don't care who the celebrities are. If you're overcrowded, you're overcrowded," he says.

New York City is now among the most stringent with its rules. To get cabaret licenses, clubs must have automatic music shut-off systems that trigger in an emergency, strobe lights over exits, and other safety measures. These requirements have evolved out of past tragedies.

The nation's biggest club disaster was the Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston in 1942, in which 492 people died, including many who couldn't escape because of a jammed revolving door. The calamity sparked major fire-code changes. Such improvements may be helping. The number of fires in nightclubs nationwide dropped from 1,369 in 1980 to 510 in 1998, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

But common sense may be the best protection. "We're going to look for exit signs wherever we go," says clubgoer Laurrie Johnson from Chicago. "And we're getting key chains with flashlights on them."

All in all, says a veteran Chicago musician, clubbing may be about escaping daily life, but people need to stay grounded. "When they're out drinking, having fun, partying," he says, "there needs to be something in their minds connecting them to their surroundings."

Reported by staff writers Amanda Paulson in West Warwick, R.I., and Christina McCarroll in Boston, and contributors Anne Stein in Chicago, Stacey Vanek Smith in New York, and James Blair in Los Angeles. Associated Press material was used in this report.

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