No Seconds to Spare
Sunday was a day of disaster in the Brazilian city of Santa Maria as a raging fire at a popular club called Kiss killed over 230 patrons.
The fire was caused by pyrotechnics initiated by the band. In addition to reports of severe crowding, witnesses stated that revelers were prevented from exiting by guards concerned about lost revenue.
Panicked club-goers then streamed toward bathrooms that were a dead-end with no exit.
West Warwick, Rhode Island 2003
We are just a few days shy of the 10th anniversary of the West Warwick, Rhode Island, Station night club fire that killed 100 patrons on February 20, 2003, in nearly identical circumstances.
At 11:07 that evening the band ignited pyrotechnics which rapidly spread to the ceiling and wall coverings, some of which were covered with polyurethane foam. The sequence of events were nearly instantaneous and shocking in their severity.
The building had no sprinklers. A fire detection system went into alarm at +41 seconds after fire ignition. At +36 seconds three patrons had already made a call to 911 reporting the fire. At +1:30 thick black smoke was visible from windows and smoke appeared to be at floor level inside. As a reference point, the first engine arrived on scene at +5:21.
In the wake of the fire the National Institute of Standards and Technology conducted extensive testing to explore the conditions in the club and the effect that sprinklers would have had.
In the unsprinklered test, roughly paralleling the actual fire event, at +60 seconds the temperature below the ceiling was just under 400 degrees Fahrenheit. At +1:30 the temperature ten feet below the ceiling was 464 degrees Fahrenheit. Lethal conditions existed well before the fire department ever left quarters. They faced an impossible task on arrival.
In the sprinklered test, the fire was controlled and conditions were clearly survivable for over five minutes, indeed the temperature held at just 77 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Santa Maria fire is a wake-up call for firefighters and patrons, alike. Firefighters should use the event to visit such high hazard occupancies in order to warn against the use of pyrotechnics and to monitor the condition of life safety features.
We all must remind ourselves and those we care about to stay out of venues where fire survival is unlikely.