“People went to the bathrooms looking for windows, they fell unconscious, then others crawled on top of them to get to the windows”
A couple of years ago, I was sitting with Dominique Czopr, owner of The Boileroom, a 250 capacity venue in Guildford. I’d travelled to meet her ahead of her appearance as guest speaker on a live music short course I was giving for MusicTank, University of Westminster, and one which I’m reprising now. One of her many areas of expertise surrounds the Health, Safety and Legislation issues in live music venues. She told me of a deadly fire in a nightclub in Rhode Island called The Station. She said there was footage online, shot by local reporter who was there, ironically, for a planned piece on nightclub safety. I said we should show this video to the students when she came to speak, to underline the seriousness of the issues. She told me to watch the film first, then decide. I did as she suggested. I wished I hadn’t, as a wall of humanity – their mouths and arms grasping for air, wedged in the only exit available – died in front of me. The band’s tour manager had set off pyrotechnics, the ceiling ignited and in less than six minutes the building was engulfed in flames. 100 people went to watch a band that night. They never went home. I’d just watched a horror film.
I saw another, shorter clip, the other day, as news outlets around the world re-ran Brazilian media clips of young men wielding sledgehammers and axes, desperately trying to smash down the concrete walls of a nightclub in Santa Maria, praying that their friends inside would still be breathing when they reached them. 242 people went to drink and dance with their friends that night, many between the ages of 16 and 20. They never went home. “People went to the bathrooms looking for windows, they fell unconscious, then others crawled on top of them to get to the windows”. Their bodies were found in piles almost two metres high.
People die when unavoidable mistakes happen, but they also die through negligence and greed. They’re put at risk when you lock one of your doors to save the expense of hiring an extra member of security, or don’t make it clear where your exits are. They’re put at risk when you knowingly oversell your show, or ram your guest list, for the sake of a few extra pounds in your pocket or to give the gig that illusive aura of cool. They’re endangered when you ask the promoter if he can cover up the smoke detectors or switch off the fire alarm so you can use your smoke machine on stage.
I’ve been in a few death-trap venues around the world – some in the UK in the past year – and learned, like Dominique, that the first thing you do when you arrive at a venue is to look for the quickest way out, because if you’re unlucky, you’re just a locked door away from never going home.
[Picture: what was left of The Station Nightclub after the fire]