Earlier this year, a nightclub in Brazil caught fire and caused over 240 fatalities. Most of the victims were college students who had come for a Federal University of Santa Maria event. The party featured a band and pyrotechnics show. When the members of the band lit flares as a planned part of the show, one of the flares reportedly ignited foam insulation on the ceiling.

There were no automatic fire suppression devices, such as sprinklers, to prevent the conflagration from spreading. USA Today reported that the lead singer was given a fire extinguisher, but the device was not functioning properly. There was apparently only one building exit, and patrons crowded to the front door. Many did not escape in time and died from asphyxiation. Sadly, this was not the first incident of its kind to occur.

Nightclub Structure Fire in Rhode Island

A similar incident occurred at The Station Nightclub in West Warwick one decade ago. Just as in Santa Maria, Brazil, the accident occurred as the result of a band performing a pyrotechnics display to accompany the music within a building not equipped with automatic sprinklers. According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the display “…ignited foam insulation lining the walls and part of the ceiling of the platform being used as a stage.” Smoke started to pour out the front entryway only 71 seconds after ignition, and half a minute later, patrons were piled up in front of the doorway. One hundred people died. These two tragic events have taught fire protection engineers some important lessons about building design and materials.

The NIST performed a full-scale investigation of the West Warwick fire. The organization conducted numerous experiments and used Fire Dynamic Simulator and Smokeview to help guide their efforts. There is a video comparing experiments with and without fire suppression sprinkler systems available for view.

The experiments demonstrate clearly that a sprinkler system could have saved the majority of lives lost in Rhode Island. Although the investigation of the Santa Maria fire is still pending, it is likely that improved fire safety could have reduced the loss of life.

By Jeff Harrington, CEO and Founder of Harrington Group, Inc.