John Barylick: Oakland fire is "the most recent example of humans' inability to learn from tragedy"
Attorney who represented families in 2003 fire says we must be vigilant about safety
Editor’s Note: John Barylick is a Rhode Island attorney who represented victims of the 2003 Station Nightclub Fire. He is the author of “Killer Show: The Station Nightclub Fire, America’s Deadliest Rock Concert.” Barylick teaches complex litigation at Boston University School of Law and is of counsel to the firm of FoleyCerilli, PC, in Providence, Rhode Island. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
This past Friday night saw a deadly fire erupt in Oakland, California. Within minutes, at least 36 young lives were snuffed out at the Ghost Ship, a dilapidated warehouse with a history of violations and complaints (including reportedly being reported to the fire marshal in 2014).
No official cause of the fire has yet been determined, but illegal residences, an illegal party, and inadequate exits appear to have contributed. The Ghost Ship building was not licensed as a nightclub or for residences, but early reports suggest that its landlords allowed both uses.
I am watching this story unfold with special interest because I represented victims of Rhode Island’s 2003 Station Nightclub fire, and I recognize what the two tragedies have in common: In Oakland, as at the Station Nightclub fire 13 years ago, negligence outweighed any concern for safety.
What is it about the heady mix of music and money that encourages bands, club and building owners and even building inspectors to ignore basic safety considerations?
Whatever it is, it will probably continue to impair judgments in the future, right after the brief period of heightened attention and code enforcement that usually follows tragic club fires. The one takeaway from the sorry history of club fires is that we can’t rely on bands, owners, or public officials to protect us when we attend shows.
In short, we’ve no choice but to be our own best fire marshals.
Oakland’s club fire was only the most recent example of humans’ inability to learn from tragedy.
The morning before metal band Great White’s ill-fated appearance at the Station Nightclub, the group’s frontman, Jack Russell, bragged, “It’s gonna be a killer show.” That night, he delivered. When illegal pyrotechnics set off by his band ignited flammable plastic foam on the club’s walls, the resulting blaze killed 100 patrons of the overcrowded club.
You’d think that bands, club owners and building inspectors would thereafter permanently step up their games to make sure similar tragedies never happened again.
You’d be wrong. Less than two years after the Station fire, the Cromagnon Republic nightclub in Argentina went up in pyrotechnic-sparked flames, killing 175 young people. In 2009, sixty-one New Year’s revelers lost their lives in a Bangkok nightclub when fireworks ignited its ceiling.
In December of that same year, 109 young Russians were killed in another nightclub fire. As recently as 2013, pyrotechnics torched a club in Brazil, killing more than 230 young people. One suspects the Oakland fire won’t be the last of its kind.
Thankfully, several states strengthened both fire codes and their enforcement in the wake of the Station fire. Unfortunately, though, enforcement tends to flag as the memory of each latest tragedy fades. We have an obligation to keep ourselves – individually and as communities – safe in the meantime.
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What does it mean to be your own fire marshal? It means that upon arriving at any venue, you must look carefully at the building. Does it look well maintained? Does the staff appear well trained? As you proceed to your seat, take notice of your route. Are there any pinch-points (areas where congestion is likely to occur) that would interfere with quick escape?
Once seated, locate the nearest exit (in addition to the one you came in) and share its location with your friends. Agree beforehand that this is the exit you’ll immediately head for in the event of any emergency or threat, be it a fire, an attack, or a natural disaster.
To ensure your safety and those of your friends, go with your gut. If a building feels wrong, or dangerous, leave. No show is worth your life.