With the 10th anniversary of the Station nightclub fire approaching, I've been reading Providence lawyer John Barylick's definitive account of the tragedy, Killer Show: The Station Nightclub Fire, America's Deadliest Rock Concert.
Barylick, one of the lead attorneys for the victims, is unsparing in his lawyerly prosecution of the club owners and local officials. But he also takes an intriguing dip into crowd behavior.
The author describes an assemblage that, with some exceptions, took many seconds to realize that rock band Great White's pyrotechnics had ignited a dangerous fire - a delay that may have been the difference between life and death.
And among the experts he quotes is the late Guylene Proulx, who taught civil and environmental engineering at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Proulx described a phenomenon of "commitment," which she explained after watching video from inside the Station that night:
The people paid good money to hear the band, and they were going to continue watching, in denial of what they were seeing. Members of the public are very ill-prepared to judge the danger of fire. We just don't have experience with anything but controlled fire in a fireplace or campsite setting. We have no idea how building fires can build exponentially in a matter of seconds.
Proulx argued that people were "committed" to the entertainment - their attention not easily shifted. And the video, recorded by a TV news cameraman who was in the club that night, lends some credence to the theory.
Twenty-three seconds after ignition of the pyrotechnics, the tape shows a crowd still transfixed by the music - many
flashing the heavy metal "devil's horns" sign. However, Barylick
one redheaded female in the front row clutches
both hands to her head in dismay. She is among the first to appreciate
that flaming walls are not part of the show. Over the next half minute
the crowd's demeanor will shift from festive, to curious, to
Proulx explained "that people need to be roused from their state of commitment to an entertainment activity by fire alarms that trigger early and are unmistakable in their clarity," Barylick writes.
The alarm, in this case, went off no earlier than 50 seconds after the pyrotechnics were ignited, the author writes - whether it was an automated response or the pull box activated by a lighting technician is unclear.
By that point, Great White had already stopped playing. By that point, the crowd's attention was already focused on the fire. By that point, it was too late.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology, a federal agency that investigated the incident, estimates that the fire exceeded 1830 degrees on the dance floor and 930 degrees in the main bar area within two minutes. One hundred people died.