By Jared Shelly
The cell phones kept ringing and vibrating, but none of the people in the nightclub were alive to answer them. Those on the other end of those calls were undoubtedly desperate to know if their loved ones had survived the ravenous fire that engulfed Kiss nightclub in Santa Maria, Brazil, on Jan. 27. Unfortunately, 235 of them hadn't.
More than 2,000 people packed the club that night to see the band Gurizada Fandangueira, a number far higher than the legal occupancy of 691. After the band lit pyrotechnics, the ceiling of the club caught fire and the blaze started spreading fast.
When onlookers realized the fire was not part of the show, they stampeded toward the only exit available --the front door. With patrons rushing the now clogged doorway, others found that the fire extinguishers were expired or fake, according to news reports. The lead singer of the band even grabbed a fire extinguisher but his use of it was too little, too late.
The Brazil fire was eerily similar to a fire at The Station nightclub in Rhode Island in 2003. Pyrotechnics launched during a performance by the band Great White sparked highly flammable soundproofing material on the ceiling of that club and in a matter of minutes, the club was engulfed in flames. That fire killed 100 people.
Vincent Quinterno, fire safety training officer at the Rhode Island State Fire Marshal's Office was on the scene that night, in charge of body recovery.
"I have never been honored to serve our country in the military, so that night was my war scene. Not a day goes by that I don't see every one of those bodies I removed," said Quinterno.
There have been other deadly club fires around the world in the past 10 years: a 2009 fire in Perm, Russia, that killed 156 people; a 2008 fire at a club in China that killed 43; and an Argentina club fire in 2004 that killed 194. (See sidebar.)
All had eerily similar patterns: pyrotechnics lit indoors, flammable material inside the venue and a lack of multiple working exits.
Shortly after the 2003 incident in Rhode Island, Americans stepped up their enforcement and risk mitigation techniques at concerts and club venues. Cities and towns updated their fire codes and emphasized increased training. It remains to be seen if the Brazil tragedy will have a similar effect.
Still, Quinterno said, too many club managers and owners refuse to heed the warnings of previous events.
"What happened in Rhode Island woke people up around the world, but as fast as it happened is as quickly as people forget," he said. "I think it will happen again."
Harold Hansen, director of life safety and security at the International Association of Venue Managers in Chicago, said "the fact that it keeps happening means enough lessons aren't being learned."
But fire marshals around the United States are not backing away from enforcing fire code laws.
"They are taking it seriously," said Hansen. "They always have, but the bar is getting raised."
Given the number of club fires that have occurred from the source, risk mitigation would reasonably include a strict ban on indoor pyrotechnics, experts said. While explosive, fiery discharges can punctuate a rock concert, the effect is not worth possible death. Plus, electronic lights these days can shine quite bright and be just as dazzling to the eye.
It's also important that venues offer a multitude of exits and don't admit more people than the fire code allows.
"Non-fixed seating venues seem to have the biggest problems because they can just pack them in," said Donna Mescall, underwriting manager specializing in entertainment at Philadelphia Insurance Cos.
Even something as innocuous as a light could start a fire if it's too close to a curtain or some other flammable fabric. A theater in San Francisco recently suffered just such a fate, with the fire there causing $400,000 in damages, Mescall said.
Brian Kingman, a commercial insurance broker who has been managing entertainment risk for years, said that, oftentimes, the big players in the space like AEG and Live Nation have comprehensive risk management techniques. For other promoters, it's anybody's guess.
"Generally speaking if it's not one of the big boys promoting ... anything goes," said Kingman, managing director of Gallagher Entertainment.
One common mistake is blocking exit doors with equipment or deliberately locking them. While it may make sense to try keeping non-ticket holders from coming inside, it can be far more dangerous to have patrons inside who can't get out.
While a common-sense solution is a one-way door that only opens from the inside, Kingman said, that's still unsecure because someone can just prop it open with a matchbook or other tool. The best plan is to have people at the exits who can re-establish who belongs back in after they leave.
Doors get locked because doing so is cheaper than posting a staff member there, said Hansen.
"Life is precious," he said, "If you, indeed, have a responsibility to make a secondary exit work, you need to face that reality."
Venues should also create and drill staff on an emergency preparedness plan so they know their roles if something goes wrong, said Hansen.
"You need to know what the heck you're going to do," he said.
For every 250 guests inside, the venue should have one trained crowd manager who can spot potential problems like blocked or locked exit doors. That's not "just a body standing at the door" said Hansen, but instead "somebody knowledgeable about how to get people out and how to move them, checking fire exits and prepared to say, 'It's time to go.' "
Another good idea is to announce to patrons before a concert or show what to do in case of a fire or other emergency. Asking them to take a moment to locate the nearest exit could be the difference between life and death should something go wrong. Reminding the crowd more than once, perhaps before an opening act and then again before the main act, can make a difference as well, experts said.
In the wake of the Rhode Island fire, Philadelphia Insurance Cos. became stricter in determining the types of facilities it would insure, said Mescall. In fact, 10 years after the Rhode Island fire, the carrier still won't underwrite many clubs and concert venues without fixed-seating.
"It's beyond what we're comfortable with," said Mescall. "We stick to theatrical and performing arts."
The entertainment venue insurance market isn't likely to change much as a result of the fire in Brazil, said Kingman. It's been soft for a while, even though Kingman still considers risk management in the sector to be lax.
"Most underwriters in the U.S. don't do their due diligence," said Kingman. That would mean reviewing emergency evacuation plans, researching the loss history of promoters and onsite inspection of concert venues, among other measures.
is web editor/senior editor of Risk & Insurance®. He can be reached at
June 1, 2013
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