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Station Fire Victim’s Dad: “Draconian Laws Impossible to Afford”

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


Outspoken fire safety advocate Dave Kane defines the state's reaction to the Station Nightclub fire as Draconian, overpriced, and misguided. 

His stance contrasts with prevailing sentiment from local fire and government officials, such as former Warwick Fire Captain Peter Ginaitt. At a memorial service last Sunday honoring the 100 victims of the Feb. 20, 2003 fire, Ginaitt said Rhode Island learned a hard lesson and is safer for it. Ginaitt, a first responder on the scene 11 year ago, is a Warwick Democrat – a 15-year State Rep. –  who served as co-chairman of the House Oversight Commission to Study the Ramifications of the Fire Safety Code.  Kane agrees that the state is safer, but he believes safety is as much about accountability as it is about sprinklers and fire extinguishers.

"I'm not sure I agree with the reasons he gave. He was saying there are more sprinklers and et cetera. That wasn't what we needed to do. We didn't need any of the new laws. We needed instead to make sure the safety officials are doing their jobs," Kane said.

Kane's son, 18-year-old Nicholas O'Neill, was the youngest victim of the fire. Kane has since become a proponent of fire safety awareness and the enforcement of strict laws for the administration of fire safety inspections on public buildings. He publicly opposed former  Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch's handling of the criminal investigations after the fire, and believes the laws since put in place were reactionary and crippling to small businesses.

"We passed the most Draconian fire laws in the history of the world. People went out of business. Small businesses who were completely fine were ordered to spend thousands of dollars. Churches were forced to close. We passed all of these codes that were next to impossible to afford. It didn't accomplish what it was meant to accomplish and we didn't need to do it," Kane said.

According to Kane, the original building capacity for the Station Nightclub building was 60 people. It was eventually raised to over 400 people. He blames public officials and the owners in the "good old boys" network for allowing the club to operate at that capacity.

"They intentionally lied about the capacity at that club. We're talking about people who helped each other out illegally. Period. The new laws are nice but if we had just enforced the law then 400 people wouldn't have been in a club that was built for 60."

Local filmmaker David Bettencourt turned his attention to the Station nightclub fire three years ago, with encouragement from friend and survivor Missy Minor Martone.

"One of the things I learned from my research and from the many interviews we did with fire officials, investigators, witnesses, and survivors from the web series was that the fire code in Rhode Island at the time was actually really solid, but it just didn't have any 'teeth," Bettencourt said.

"When I talked to officials from the RI Fire Code Safety Review board, they basically told me that the code, as it was written, was strict enough but just wasn't enforced: fines were ridiculously low for violations and often inspectors didn't follow up on changes that they wanted to see in nightclubs. A lot of places were allowed to be 'grandfathered' in."

The cost and the codes

"Just days after the Station Fire – which was also just days after that stampede in a nightclub in Chicago – there were sweeping changes and tough new code provisions regarding nightclub safety, fire sprinkler codes, and crowd management. And inspectors had 'teeth' behind them. There were heavy fines and multiple inspections. No messing around," Bettencourt said.

After the fire, then Governor Donald Carcieri gave orders to make Rhode Island the safest state in the nation by punching up the state’s fire prevention code.

"Carcieri wanted the safest state and the best fire codes in the country," said former Chief Fire Marshall Frank Sylvester, currently chief of the Lime Rock Fire District in Lincoln.

A tougher code was implemented in 2004. It repealed the “grandfather clause” that exempted older buildings from adopting modern sprinklers and wired alarm systems. Today, every Rhode Island nightclub with a crowd capacity of 150 or more must have a sprinkler system. Although nightclubs under 150 capacity are exempt, they must meet other fire-prevention requirements, such as having a fire alarm system that shuts off speakers and turns up lights when activated. Doorway and exit sign regulations have also been tightened. The code also requires that audiences be informed of exit signs and evacuations prior to performances.

Gathering spaces such as schools, churches, warehouses, restaurants, and banquet halls were included in the same regulations as night clubs. Facing unexpected and costly upgrades to their property, some owners sought help from the General Assembly. Certain codes were  relaxed for churches and schools, as well as low risk business sectors. In response to cost complaints, options were offered for alternative wiring methods and sprinklers or alarms were allowed to be placed strategically as opposed to throughout entire buildings.

"The intent of putting these codes in was never to put anybody out of business. We don't want this to happen again. That was our main goal," Sylvester said.

"I'm the type of guy who believes the first thing is public safety, the second is business friendly."

The penalties and the price  

State officials now have random spot checks and costly penalties at their fingertips. Club owners may be fined $250 for the first offense, $500 for a second and $1,000 for a third offense, along with an appearance before a judge. Proponents say this finally gives teeth to the fire codes, but there may not be enough sharks in the water.

"They're overworked at the State Fire Marshall's office now as far as the job they have to do for what they have for staff. They go out and do an awful lot of inspections," Sylvester said.

While property owners that could not or would not come up to code faced fines, the owners who followed the rules faced big bills. Many property owners spent $50,000 to $100,000 to get up to code, such as the American Legion Post 10 in Riverside.

"The American Legion was hit hard when it had to put in a bunch of fire suppression [improvements]. They spent in excess of fifty thousand dollars," said Chrissy Rossi, Ward 4 East Providence City Councilwoman.

Rossi said the Legion, which is in her Ward, faced the same financial struggle as the local Elks Clubs and Knights of Columbus. 

"I think what happened at the Station was a horrible tragedy. I had been there myself. The floor was a matchbox soaked in alcohol. But the [revised] codes we're probably just a knee jerk reaction and it cost a lot of companies. A lot of them went out of business when they couldn't come up with that kind of money. I'm sure we are the epitome of safety now. But I think they probably could have done it better. I don't think anyone needed to go this far over the top."

One of the most famous businesses to pull out of state after the new codes were introduced is Lombardi's 1025 Club. The Johnston-based club was a Rhode Island banquet institution before owner Steve Lombardi closed the doors because of the cost of compliance.

On the other end of the financial spectrum is Twin River in Lincoln. 
"Twin River has spent in excess of $2.5 million in its sprinkler, fire system," said spokeswoman Patricia Doyle.

"This includes thousands of sprinklers."

When asked for a dollar amount local businesses have paid to stay current on fire regulations, East Providence Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Laura McNamara said "I've never seen it quantified. I don't know the average cost because it varies depending on the size of the building. It's definitely a burden for smaller businesses."

Makeshift Memorial set up shortly after the 2003 Station Nightclub Fire

The victims

The Station Nightclub fire is the fourth-worst nightclub fire in U.S. history, the eighth-worst fire in America in some 85 years. 100 people were killed, 230 injured. Only one-third of the crowd, 132 people, escaped without injury. The historic tragedy prompted John Barylick, a Providence-based lawyer, to write the book "Killer Show: The Station Nightclub Fire, America’s Deadliest Rock Concert."
"My need to write about the Station nightclub fire, and its human and legal aftermath, became apparent when the criminal and civil cases arising from the tragedy resolved without trials, leaving many questions unanswered. Having worked on the civil cases for seven years, I knew that most of the answers lay 'hidden in plain sight' in public records; however, the sheer volume of those records made marshaling the evidence a daunting task," Barylick said.
"My goal was to organize that surfeit of information into a comprehensible and, hopefully, engaging narrative. My broader goal was to chronicle the folly and greed that led to the horrific Station Fire."

Attorney Mark Mandell of Mandell, Schwartz & Boisclair was appointed to serve as Co-Chairman of the Plaintiffs Steering Committee in the Station Fire litigation – a suit against 97 defendants. The firm said they pursued justice for their clients for seven years. The litigation resulted in a recovery of over $176,000,000 on behalf of the victims and families affected by the fire.

"All of these people didn't die so that a lot of other people could make money selling fire extinguishers. They didn't die so that a fireman or policeman could be hired for extra duty at a dance recital," Kane said.

"We didn't need these laws. What we needed was somebody who would enforce the laws we had."


Related Slideshow: The 15 Costliest Government Programs in RI

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#15 Non-Highway Transport

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Cost Per $1,000 of Income: $4.87

National Rank: 4

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#14 Community Development

Category: Environment and Housing

Cost Per $1,000 of Income: $4.97

National Rank: 12

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Category: Environment and Housing

Cost Per $1,000 of Income: $5.09

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Cost Per $1,000 of Income: $5.40

National Rank: 49

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#11 Other Ed. & Libraries

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Cost Per $1,000 of Income: $6.00

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#10 Fire

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Cost Per $1,000 of Income: $6.50

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Cost Per $1,000 of Income: $9.25

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Cost Per $1,000 of Income: $13.59

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#3 Pensions and Other

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Cost Per $1,000 of Income: $39.62

National Rank: 4

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Good for Mr. Kane for speaking truth. Four hundred people were jammed into a room of which the legal occupancy was sixty? That means the room was filled to more than six times its capacity? Forget fire, a good bar fight and resulting stampede could have killed plenty.

First time I've read of that by the bye, wonder why that is? The more one reads of the fire code controversy, the more it stinks in of the fake, phony, gun-control putsch.

Gun control ghouls, dance in the blood of children to pimp their schemes, scream for more laws. But any dope can quickly learn that America is planted thick with gun laws, more than twenty thousand of them.

Exactly as has Mr. Kane stated about fire laws, we don't need any more of them. Passing more laws which cost us all money and liberty may make grandstanding politicians look good for a moment or two, but they do nothing to enhance citizen safety.

Project Exile was a joint state, local, and federal law enforcement effort during the 90s. Conducted in Richmond, Virginia, Project Exile targeted, prosecuted, and incarcerated all criminals who violated any and all gun laws. Criminals went to the big house, and citizens could walk the streets in safety, without the passage of one new law but instead merely the vigilant enforcement of existing laws.

Mr. Kane speaks with eloquence to the wisdom of first enforcing existing laws, a tedious process which makes citizens safe as opposed to the passage of new laws, which gives politicians more camera time.

Kudos to him for so doing.

Comment #1 by paul zecchino on 2014 02 19

The reaction that Mr. Kane is critical of is typical of government when it feels responsible for a disaster through some failure of its own. We need only look to the more widely known reaction of the U.S. government to the 9/11 disasters. Enforcement of the rules in place at the time, plus the cooperation of the airline corporations to voluntarily install expensive hardened cockpit access, would likely have prevented those disasters, but there were cracks in the enforcement that were exploited by the attackers. The well-known government response was enactment of the draconian limits on airline passengers that we have today.

Comment #2 by Charles Beckers on 2014 02 19

To assume that fire sprinklers aren't necessary and the codes were enough shows the lack of understanding of the codes process and enforcement. Mr. Kane has my attention, but I hope I can guide this article in a slightly more realistic direction.
There are 3 E's in the world of Life Safety and "protection"; Education, Enforcement, and Engineering.
You cannot just harp on the Enforcement without tying in all three. How about Education? Why was it not primarily the responsibility of the nightclub owners to learn, to self "Educate" about running a business? Education, public or private, mandated or voluntary is the first step.
Enforcement based on what I have read of the incident assuredly could have been better. In not knowing the culture of enforcement at that time and what the education requirements were, I'll stop there.
"Engineering" is the last chance to get a finger in the dike when the first two E's have failed. But even engineered devices as life saving fire sprinkler systems and alarms still will require education of the building owners or homeowners in how these systems work and how to make sure they are operational 24/7. Enforcement will always be needed to check for compliance and work with owners where needed to keep systems up to code.
So it is not all about Enforcement...it starts with the owner. It ends with fire sprinklers, if or when needed.

Comment #3 by Dominick Kasmauskas on 2014 02 19

Mr. Kasmaukas, you say "enforcement...could have been better." Actually, the responsible inspector was CRIMINALLY NEGLIGENT and the insider club protected him and his pension. Could have been better...yeah!

Comment #4 by John Ward on 2014 02 19

The Station was a disaster waiting to happen. Exit doors were locked and/or swung the wrong way. But the biggest blunder of all is the "fire inspector" not noticing that the walls were covered in sound-proofing celluloid styrofoam that was basically as flammable as gasoline! Most of the blame lies in the fire inspector (happily retired now) IMHO. He missed/ignored the most glaring dangers, which could have been corrected easily and cheaply. Very sad tragedy which did NOT need to happen.

Comment #5 by Dave Johnson on 2014 02 19

I agree with Dave Kane.....virtue stirs the middle course...not extremes. People deliberately broke laws that were already in the books.These people never answered for their crimes.

Comment #6 by sister jean kettell on 2014 02 19

John~ I was trying to be nice about it and not accusatory as I was not there nor intimate with the findings.
My point is that if the law had been passed a few years BEFORE the fire, 100 people would have not died by fire that night. Fire sprinklers are the last line of defense when Education and Enforcement doesn't hold up.

Comment #7 by Dominick Kasmauskas on 2014 02 19

I agree with mr kane - how many jobs has this cost the state. hundreds, maybe thousands.

Comment #8 by john paycheck on 2014 02 19

The inspector should have caught the exit doors were locked or swung the wrong way, as Dave Johnson stated. Better emphasis should have and has been placed on exits.

I know that after the fire the styrofoam was blamed for the rapid spread of the fire. I'm not sure the inspector could have caught that without taking a piece of wall and putting fire to it.

As for the statements made by Dave Kane in the article, I would mostly agree with him. Political connections giving waivers or bending laws for the bureaucratic buddies, takes a large percentage of blame here. Even the part of the new law for work details for fire and police. I'm not sure how many have to be in attendance, but it seems to be a little overkill.

Comment #9 by Wuggly Ump on 2014 02 20

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