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  • Peter McGuire

Trapped Inside: When Fires Cause Stampedes (continued)

Part 9 in a series on human stampedes and crushes.

Read part 8


Now that we’ve asked, how did we not have better fire and crush safety by 1903, we have to ask, shouldn’t we have learned by 1940? What about 2003? I suspect one reason we still see deadly attempted building escapes is because of misunderstandings about human stampedes. I’m Peter McGuire and this is my Unlikely Explanation.

One explanation is that firefighting in America remains a local and largely volunteer service. As of 2018, 67% of firefighters were volunteers and that’s the lowest it’s ever been. Just because lessons are painfully learned in Chicago or New York doesn’t mean they’re properly observed by building owners, building codes, and fire inspectors throughout the country.

That’s why, in 1940, a nightclub fire in Mississippi became the fourth-deadliest in history when 209 died trying to escape. The packed club was decorated with spanish moss treated with a petroleum-based insecticide. All but three of the windows were boarded to keep interlopers from seeing or hearing the performers inside. Another two were barred. Fire spread through the Spanish moss in seconds, igniting hair and blinding eyes as the air became thick with smoke. A large section of moss fell between the dance floor and the only exit, a single door that opened inwards. Almost all of the 209 bodies were found in a large pile by the bandstand. Doctors attributed their deaths to crushing and smoke inhalation. It’s reckoned that almost every black family in Natchez had at least one family member or friend at the Rhythm Night Club that night.

What about the most popular nightclub in Boston? Does that seem safe? In 1942, the Cocoanut Grove became the second-deadliest single-building fire in the U.S. when 492 died trapped inside. It was packed with 1,000 people but had an occupancy of 600. The Boston Fire Department had declared it safe just ten days earlier. The walls were covered in fabric to create a South Seas theme of palm trees and coconuts. Likewise, the ceiling was a large, draped fabric to create a night-time effect. When it caught fire, it rained smoke and flaming fabric on patrons, making escape very difficult very quickly and consuming the building in flames in under 5 minutes. Most patrons ran for the main entrance, a revolving door that immediately jammed with bodies completely. Other exits were locked to prevent people sneaking in, or opened inwards. Firefighters estimated that as many as 300 could have survived if the doors opened outwards. This is based on the fact that 444 burn victims were hospitalized but only 130 survived, meaning they lost crucial seconds trying to escape.

Rhode Island, 2003

The Station nightclub fire is especially frightening to me because it happened at a small venue similar to ones that I have played. It had a maximum occupancy of 404 and held 462 people at the time of the fire. Of them, 230 were injured and another 100 died.

The Station was an old building, built in 1946. When new owners converted the space from a restaurant to a higher-capacity nightclub, local regulations required them to install a sprinkler system but the owners claimed they never knew and fire inspectors never noticed. As a result, there were no fire safety precautions at all in place near the stage, where the fire started. In the chain of lawsuits that followed, it became clear that the acoustic foam around the stage was to blame for much of the severity of the fire. Foam around the stage and in speakers was flammable and produced dark, noxious smoke.

The hard rock band Great White began their set with their hit “Desert Moon.” Seconds later their manager cued a row of 4 gerbs behind them, an incendiary device that shoots sparks for 15 seconds. About 10 seconds into the sparks, the gerb on the right side of the stage lit acoustic foam on fire. The fire quickly spread across the ceiling of the stage.

We know with precise, second-by-second detail the first stage of the fire because a cameraman for the local news station was taping inside the club when the fire started. He noticed the fire right away and began backing up. You can see as he passes people that they start turning around and calming walking out. Then, just as the camera loses sight of the stage and he nears the exit of the building, the screaming starts. In under a minute, the camera is outside and we can see black smoke pouring out of the club and people emerging with black-colored faces and hair. You can watch this video online, but I warn you, it’s very graphic. I considered playing it for this podcast to illustrate how fast the fire spread but even the audio alone is too disturbing.

A survivor who ultimately passed out still inside the club and suffered severe burns recalls a “black rain” as the ceiling and acoustic material melted from the intense heat. The black liquid carried burning hot oils onto the heads and skin of victims, lighting many people’s heads on fire.

We can see from a map that investigators made how the crush contributed to the death toll. There were zero deaths near the door just beside the stage and at the door on the far side of the main bar. Instead, bodies are clustered in two areas. A group of 19 bodies were found in the back, near the walk-in cooler. They presumably were searching for a way out in the one part of the building without an exit. The majority of the bodies, 58, were found near the main entrance.

The street entrance of the Station had double doors leading into a vestibule, followed by another door and another small entrance room, before opening up to the main room of the club. This was the exit that most clubgoers knew about and the only one visible from the dance floor once the smoke ruined visibility. As people tried to flee the burning dance floor, they quickly filled the exit hallway, completely blocking everyone behind them. You can see in the video that many people fell just at the exit doors and survivors tried to pull people out over the pile of bodies, most still alive.

The closest door to the dance floor was the band door, marked as an emergency exit. Multiple survivors recollect trying to exit through this door only to be turned around by a bouncer with instructions to only allow the band through, even as the fire became obvious. Blocking the other viable exit no doubt increased the death toll and contributed to the congestion of the exit hallway.

It’s likely that the vestibule design contributed to deaths as people became trapped in both doorways and in the short, narrow hallway between them. Most clubs that I’ve been to have a variation on this design. I think the best thing you can do in a smaller club like this is to note all the exits when you come in so that you have multiple escape options if things go suddenly wrong. Also, don’t let a bouncer block an emergency exit in an emergency.

A later investigation found that sprinklers would have given everyone time to escape. The Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act would require all commercial buildings to have a sprinkler system and has widespread support from firefighters and fire safety groups. It has been introduced in one form or another to every session of congress since 2003 and has never passed. Most recently, its provisions were included in the CARES Act of 2021 which failed to pass congress by one vote.

This is a rare case where criminal responsibility was assessed in court. The tour manager, Daniel Biechelle, pleaded guilty against his lawyers’ advice. He read a prepared statement at his sentencing, saying “I don't know that I'll ever forgive myself for what happened that night, so I can't expect anybody else to. I can only pray that they understand that I would do anything to undo what happened that night and give them back their loved ones.” He was sentenced to 15 years, with 4 to serve and 11 suspended. The judge considered him very unlikely to reoffend, i.e. set off pyrotechnics in a club, again.

A parole board in 2007 scheduled Biechelle’s release for 2008, citing the letters they’d received from families of the dead. The parents of the youngest victim, who was 18 at the time of his death, wrote “In the period following this tragedy, it was Mr. Biechele, alone, who stood up and admitted responsibility for his part in this horrible event ... He apologized to the families of the victims and made no attempt to mitigate his guilt.” He also wrote personal apology letters to families of each of the 100 victims. He ultimately served a little under 2 years and has not spoken to the press since.

It became clear in the investigations that the foam materials were most to blame for igniting and creating deadly, dark smoke. Corporations involved in creating and selling the materials, from the foam manufacturer to the Home Depot that sold it, paid settlements to victims. Corporations cannot be held criminally liable in the United States.

The owners of the nightclub initially pled not guilty to manslaughter and ultimately changed their pleas to “no contest.” Michael Derderian received the same sentence as Biechelle. His brother, Jeffrey, received 500 hours of community service. The court found that their sentences reflected their part in purchasing and installing flammable foam in their club. Michael served a little under 3 years before being released for good behavior.

The remains of the building were destroyed and removed shortly after the fire. The site became an unofficial memorial, meeting place, and place of worship for the local community. In 2017, it became the Station Fire Memorial Park, complete with plaques for each victim.

Clear and Present Danger

Not all fire-related crushes involve an actual fire. There have been several cases in the US and UK of people shouting “fire” in a crowded building and causing a deadly crush. In one case, over 100 died trying to escape a baptist church in Alabama when over 3000 fled shouts of “there’s a fight” misheard as “fire.” In another, 73 striking mine workers and members of their families died in a crush started by someone yelling fire at a union meeting, suspected to be an anti-union agent. These crushes happen for the same reason as real fire crushes: people become jammed at doors trying to escape, but are less deadly because the crush victims aren’t subsequently burned to death.

From 1919 to 1969, a major caveat was introduced to the first amendment in America when the supreme court ruled that free speech was illegal when it presented a “clear and present danger” to the country. The concept was introduced to rule on several cases of people publishing pamphlets opposing the entry into the first world war and the draft. Supreme Court Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes argued that anti-war writing must be suppressed because it was akin to “falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.” Of course, this operates on the logic that it’s the panic that kills and not the failure of architects and owners to provide sufficient exits and fire escapes. Holmes reasoned that this kind of speech is not protected by law because it presents a “clear and present danger.”

The doctrine was used to punish, imprison, and deport political dissenters from the 20s, to the 60s until the Warren court, in 1969, overturned the conviction of a KKK leader who was promising “revengence” against jewish and black people. They found that because the speech did not cause an “imminent lawless action,” i.e., a riot, that his hate speech should be protected. In more recent years, this decision has increasingly been questioned as legal attempts to prevent or punish hate speech run aground on this precedent. It’s an open question in this country: should you have the right to encourage violence and hate if it doesn’t directly lead to a crime? Should those who encourage hate be held accountable for the violent actions of their listeners?

This debate became especially germane during the protests surrounding George Floyd’s death in 2020. Protests, by their nature, must be disruptive, but they are exactly the expression of political will that the anti-Federalists sought to protect. Many right-wing commentators, focusing on property damage and violence of the 2020 protests, characterized them as riots. Police departments have protocols for breaking up riots. In my city of Denver, that included blinding firing less-than-lethal ordinance into crowds, a policy that blinded a bystander in one eye. Police were widely criticized at the time for using violent and haphazard anti-crowd techniques rather than controlling the crowd’s flow. In this behavior, we see echoes of Hillsborough: treating crowds as opposing armies to be subdued rather than protected. It’s no coincidence that police treated anti-police protests much more violently than the anti-mask protests going on at the same time. Denver’s Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity Act makes it illegal for officers to cover up violent incidents, requires them to wear body cameras, and illegalizes shooting randomly at crowds and dumping large quantities of tear gas on them. However, few states passed laws like Colorado’s and protests, depending on what they protest, can and are violently suppressed with anti-rioting powers given to police.

As we can see: there’s a bias in how speech is protected. From suppressing peace movements to protecting racist speech to unequal treatment of protests, free speech is most free in America when it supports the status quo and the goals of those in power. We are much more free to denigrate minorities than criticize those in power. I can only foresee this effect worsening as the country continues to polarize politically. As our worldviews drift apart, the difference between free speech and dangerous speech, the determination of what speech is harmful and what is valuable, becomes harder to agree upon.

Lima, 2020

I’m going to close with a section with the example that appears to directly contradict a point I’ve made about a hundred times now: that crush victims can’t control their own deaths.

The story as it was initially reported said that police broke up an illegal gathering of 120 people in August of 2020, as the country suffered through record high rates of covid and imposed strict gathering size restrictions. During a nighttime raid of an illegal party at Thomas Resobar, the interior minister claimed that the partygoers, “tried to escape through the single exit, trampling each other and getting trapped in the stairway.”

The president at the time was clear where the blame lay: “I have sorrow and I have sadness for the people and relatives of the people who have died, but I also have anger and indignation for those who were irresponsible by organising this. Please reflect, let's not lose more lives due to negligence."

In short, police claimed they knocked on a door to break up a party, and the partygoers, knowing they’d be arrested, panicked and stampeded each other to death. After all the examples we’ve looked at, this should sound wrong. Trampling and stampeding are not the problem. It’s crowd pressure meeting a hard obstacle that kills.

Police then clarified that the dead were crushed on a descending staircase behind the only entrance door, which opens inwards. They claimed this door was “pushed closed in the chaos.”

We might ask, if the only entrance was guarded by police, how does rushing towards it help you avoid arrest? I couldn’t find an answer to this question for a while because all the reports in English came out the day after the incident and rely on the police description of events. Even the English-language wikipedia entry uses the police version. From here on, I’m relying heavily on AI translation from Spanish, help from the Peru subreddit, and watching the security camera footage, so, please, bear with me.

Residents say they’d made many complaints about parties at the Thomas Restobar. Rather than arresting the owners or shutting down the building, police waited for a party to be in full swing to attempt to arrest the attendees. Security footage of the incident released weeks later directly contradicts the police account.

It shows police enter the building via the inward-opening door at the bottom of the stairwell and close it. It was closed long before the incident began. One officer guards the door as the others break up the party. Witnesses claim that, offscreen, they separate men and women and explain that they will be processed as they descend the staircase. The plan is for the officers at the bottom of the stairs to take each person’s information and then allow them out of the door. A much safer plan would have been to take their information on the outside of the door, but police were worried that suspects would try to rush past them and escape.

Women are sent down first. A few women descend most of the stairs, where they are halted by the officer at the bottom. Another officer joins him with another group of women, who are halted halfway up the stairs. Then a few more women run down the stairs more haphazardly. Officers at the bottom look concerned. At this point, two officers at the top of the stairs are pushed backwards into the view of the camera by the crowd. At the same time, the two officers at the bottom call for everyone to move back. This is the moment that mistakes become irreversible.

It’s hard to see, but it looks like the officers at the bottom of the stairs try unsuccessfully to open the door just as the crowd of men pushes past the top of the stairs, carrying one of the police blocking them along, as they plunge down into the stairwell. Three officers at the top of the stairs watch as a flow of people blasts past them into the blocked stairwell, one randomly hitting people in the head with a baton as they go by. From this moment, the crush continued until the door was ripped off its hinges with tow rope from the outside. In the end, 13 people died, 3 of them police officers.

The latter part of the video is shocking when you know what’s happening at the other end of the hallway, now completely obscured by bodies. For almost a full minute, a stream of people flows into a stairway that we know is completely sealed with bodies on the other end.

Then, as now, the general attitude in Peru was that partygoers were endangering public health so they more-or-less got what was coming to them. Police blamed the crowd unequivocally and stuck to their story that the crowd had closed the door until security footage was released. This footage shows that police closed the door before directing the first partygoers down the stairs. In response, the general in charge of the operation, Máximo Ramírez, denied that police had lied about the door being open because police did not lock it closed. Unfortunately, whether it was locked did not matter once it was blocked by the crush.

Ramírez claimed that the video showed the crowd at fault: “The mob rushed the lieutenant and cornered him against the door and it could no longer be opened […] the parishioners thought that the door was open, so, it is evident, they have gone against all the ladies who went ahead and suffocated them.” When asked why police were striking people with clubs as they piled down the stairwell, Ramirez responded that the situation was chaotic and “you have to bring order with the stick.” The people entering the crush in this part of the video appear to be pushed from behind and are moving forward to avoid being struck on the head, only worsening the crush.

It appears that the police internal investigation was quietly closed and “Juancho” Peña, a local musician who organized the illegal party, has been charged with 13 counts of homicide.

I understand that Peru has its own legal system and American legal notions don’t apply there, but it seems like a stitch-up to charge the organizer of the party with the deaths.

There is plenty of blame to go around. Peña is to blame for organizing illegal parties during covid. Partygoers and crush victims are to blame for attending the party and rushing the stairs. The building owners and local building codes are to blame for a treacherous stairway with a door that opened inwards and could become jammed.

But, clearly, the lion’s share of the blame falls on the police. Their plan to process people inside the stairway was fatally flawed because the door opened inwards. They should have realized the danger of bringing 100 people down an enclosed stairway, even if they had stationed enough officers at the top to successfully control the crowd, which they did not. The police predicted the crowd response correctly, that they would try to flee, and created this dangerous situation in an attempt to prevent it. I’m not sure if this was a failure of education or of police policy, but it got 3 officers killed. They chose this method because they viewed the crowd as their enemy: a wiley beast to be contained—and sure enough, the crowd fought police and rushed the stairs. Either the police failed to realize or failed to account for the fact that the same door that could prevent their targets from fleeing would also make their own escape impossible.

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