Skip to main content

We haven't learned from past mistakes

By John Barylick, Special to CNN
January 29, 2013 -- Updated 1541 GMT (2341 HKT)
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
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT