Skip to main content

We haven't learned from past mistakes

By John Barylick, Special to CNN
updated 10:41 AM EST, Tue January 29, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Pyrotechnics, overcrowding, poor exits have contributed to tragic fires in recent years
  • You would think the world would have learned from past incidents, John Barylick says
  • Concertgoers have to be their own fire marshals, he says

Editor's note: John Barylick, author of "Killer Show," a book on the 2003 Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island, is an attorney who represented victims in wrongful death and personal injury cases arising from the fire.

(CNN) -- Sunday morning we awoke to breaking news of another tragic nightclub fire, this time in Brazil. At last report the death toll exceeded 230.

This tragedy is not without precedent. Next month will mark the 10th anniversary of a similar nightclub fire in Rhode Island. At this sad time, it's appropriate to reflect on what we've learned from club fires -- and what we haven't.

Rhode Island's Station nightclub fire of 2003, in which 100 concertgoers lost their lives, began when fireworks set off by Great White, an 80s heavy metal band, ignited flammable packing foam on the club's walls.

Deadly blazes: Nightclub tragedies in recent history

John Barylick
John Barylick
Hundreds dead in Brazil nightclub fire

Panicked patrons stampeded toward the club's main exit, and a fatal pileup ensued. Contributing to the tragedy were illegal use of pyrotechnics, overcrowding and a wall covering that would have failed even the most rudimentary flammability tests.

Video images of the Station fire were broadcast worldwide: A concert begins; the crowd's mood changes from merry, to curious, to concerned, to horrified -- in less than a minute. You'd think the world would have learned from it. You would be wrong.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



The following year, the Republica Cromanon nightclub in Argentina went up in flames, killing 194 people. The club was made to hold about 1,000 people, but it was estimated that more than 3,000 fans were packed inside the night of the fire, which began when fans began lighting flares that caught the roof on fire.

Echoes of the past: Rhode Island victims 'can't help but watch'

Then, in January 2009, at least 64 New Year's revelers lost their lives in a nightclub in Bangkok, Thailand, after fire ignited its ceiling. Many were crushed in a rush to get out of the club. In December of that same year, a fire in a Russian nightclub, ignited by pyrotechnics, killed 156 people. Overcrowding, poor exits, and indoor fireworks all played roles in these tragedies; yet no one bothered to learn from mistakes of the past.

While responsibility for concert disasters unquestionably lies with venue operators, performers and promoters, ultimately, we, as patrons of clubs and concerts, can enhance our own safety by taking a few simple steps. The National Fire Protection Association urges concertgoers to:

• Be observant. Is the concert venue rundown or well-maintained? Does the staff look well-trained?

• As you proceed to your seat, observe how long the process takes. Could you reverse it in a hurry? Do you pass through pinch points? Is furniture in the way?

• Once seated, take note of the nearest exit. (In an emergency, most people try to exit by the door they entered, which is usually not the closest, and is always overcrowded.) Then, share the location of that nearest exit with your entire party. Agree that at the first sign of trouble, you will all proceed to it without delay.

• Once the show begins, remain vigilant. If you think there's a problem, LEAVE IMMEDIATELY. Do not stay to "get your money's worth" despite concerns about safety. Do not remain to locate that jacket or bag you placed somewhere. No concert is worth your life. Better to read about an incident the next day than be counted as one of its statistics.

Read more: How to protect yourself in a crowd

To be sure, all fire codes must be vigorously enforced, and club and concert hall operators must be held to the highest standards. A first step is banning indoor pyrotechnics in all but the largest, stadium-type venues.

But, ultimately, we are our own best "fire marshals" when it comes to avoiding, and escaping, dangerous situations. We can still enjoy shows. But it is up to us to look out for our own safety.

In coming days, Rhode Islanders will follow the unfolding news from Brazil with a sense of queasy deja vu -- the rising body counts, the victim identification process, the grieving families, and the assigning (and dodging) of blame. If only they had learned from our tragedy.

Eerie sounds of cell phones amid disaster adds to first-responder toll

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Barylick.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:18 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Frida Ghitis says as violence claims three U.S. doctors, the temptation is to despair, but aid to Afghanistan has made it a much better place
updated 2:33 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says in California, Asian-Americans are against the use of racial criteria in public colleges.
updated 2:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Heidi Schlumpf says if the Pope did tell an Argentinian woman married to a divorced man that she could take Communion, it may signify a softening of church rules on the divorced and sacraments
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Norcross, Georgia, Chief of Police Warren Summers says the new law that allows guns in bars, churches and schools will have unintended dangerous consequences.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mel Robbins says social media is often ruled by haters, and people can be brutally honest.
updated 12:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mike Downey says the golf purists can take a hike; the game needs radical changes to win back fans and players.
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 7:04 AM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT