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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

West Warwick Fire Chief Comments on Rhode Island Fire Tragedy

Aired February 21, 2003 - 17:10   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And the fire chief is now speaking -- speaking to reporters outside this disaster. Let's listen in.
PETER BROUSSEAU, WEST WARWICK FIRE CHIEF: ... the state fire marshal. They have that investigation end of it and they would be better able to answer that question for you.

QUESTION: Do you have any preliminary sense?

BROUSSEAU: I personally don't. My total focus has been on the rescue and the recovery operation.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

BROUSSEAU: Yes, it has.

QUESTION: Many people said that the place went totally dark at some points. Was there emergency lighting, and did that not work? And was there any backup generator for lights?

BROUSSEAU: Backup generators are not required. Emergency lighting, however, is, with battery backup. Those did, in fact, function. The reason for the total darkness was the density and the intensity of the smoke that was produced by the burning materials.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

BROUSSEAU: I don't.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

BROUSSEAU: The internal combustibles which the building was constructed. The paneling, the soundproofing, suspended ceiling and so forth.

QUESTION: What was the soundproofing made of?

BROUSSEAU: I don't know.

QUESTION: Chief, can you tell us what your men encountered when they arrived and how they saved more than 100 lives?

BROUSSEAU: First arriving crews found the building well involved in fire, with people streaming out the front door and also breaking through the windows where the greenhouse area was. They assisted people out of the windows and then they made entry into the building and began the rescue operation for the people that were unable to help themselves.

QUESTION: In terms of how bodies were located, in certain areas of the building, concentrated areas?

BROUSSEAU: The main concentration of victims was at the front door, the front entryway. And I personally attribute that to human nature being what it is. Many people came to this concert last night. It was their first time at the Station Club and being creatures of habit, people would have a tendency to try to get out the same way they came in. Not being cognizant of the fact that we had three other operating fire exits.

QUESTION: Roughly how many bodies were found at the front entrance?

BROUSSEAU: I'm going to say in the area of 25.

QUESTION: Chief, do you have any anecdotal information about what took place? We're hearing about a stampede type situation, where people who were smaller just couldn't get out, and that the larger people were jumping over them? I mean, do you have any information on how it unfolded in terms of people trying to escape at that front site?

BROUSSEAU: Positioning and so forth of the victims would dictate that there was quite an amount of panic and chaos. And people were very anxious to leave the building, obviously. I hesitate to use the term "stampeding," but I would say that that possibility does exist, that smaller people could have been knocked down and larger people falling over them.

QUESTION: What sort of a timeframe -- how long did it take this building to be destroyed by the fire?

BROUSSEAU: The building became more or less totally involved I would guess maybe inside of three minutes.

QUESTION: Is that highly unusual?

BROUSSEAU: Depending upon the age construction and the materials in the building, it may or may not be.

QUESTION: Chief, one of the things we've heard was that some of the soundproofing material, perhaps all of it, were something like eggshell cartons. Is there any truth to that?

BROUSSEAU: I can't comment on that because I don't know.

QUESTION: Chief, how important is that video from the news photographer to the investigation?

BROUSSEAU: Any video or any evidence that we can get -- we got in this case, is important to us.

QUESTION: Do you have that video in your possession? And if so, have you looked at it? BROUSSEAU: I have seen it, yes.

QUESTION: And what can you make of what you saw?

BROUSSEAU: It tells us several stories, and I will leave that to the investigators to answer.

QUESTION: Do you have a copy of it, though?

BROUSSEAU: We have a copy in our possession.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

BROUSSEAU: Exit signs were operating, and were over all the emergency exits. They were allegedly illuminated with battery backup.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

BROUSSEAU: Yes.

QUESTION: Chief, how could this have been avoided?

BROUSSEAU: Probably without the use of pyrotechnics in the interior of the building.

QUESTION: Should there have been emergency lighting, should there have been emergency lighting that would have come on when the other lights went off?

BROUSSEAU: Emergency lighting did come on, as I answered that question a second ago. It did come on by a battery backup.

QUESTION: Chief, the governor said that this should never have happened. He said that there should not have been pyrotechnics there. Is that accurate?

BROUSSEAU: That's very accurate.

QUESTION: Why is that the case? Why should there not have been that?

BROUSSEAU: The very nature of pyrotechnics in the interior of a combustible building speaks for itself.

QUESTION: But there are, obviously, some concerts inside buildings where there are pyrotechnics. What distinguished this from those types of concerts?

BROUSSEAU: I would say the size of the building, the construction of the building, the occupancy of the building.

QUESTION: Do you know how many people were in the building? Have you any idea now?

BROUSSEAU: The building had a permissible occupancy of 300 for this venue. The building was actually placarded for two occupancies with and without tables. The tables had been removed as per our requirements. The building had a maximum occupancy of 300 permitted. It is our belief that it was slightly under that number in that building at the time of the fire.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

BROUSSEAU: I'm sorry?

QUESTION: Was any of your men and women injured?

BROUSSEAU: Five of my firefighters were injured, yes.

QUESTION: How are they?

BROUSSEAU: They've all been released.

QUESTION: Chief, if they had applied for permit, would it have been denied?

BROUSSEAU: Absolutely.

QUESTION: And they did not apply for a permit, correct?

BROUSSEAU: They did not.

QUESTION: And I understand that this is supposed to apply to fire chief, police chief, the state fire marshal as well as the town council, correct?

BROUSSEAU: Well, what our state law dictates that they -- any pyrotechnician be licensed in the state fire marshal's office in the particular area in which they wish to operate, they need to be granted individual permit from them as well.

QUESTION: So in other words, am I correct that it would be both the state as well as the police chief, fire chief and the council?

BROUSSEAU: Well, it's -- I go by the state fire laws. And it's the state fire marshal's office and the fire chief and the town fire marshal's office.

QUESTION: Is this license a permanent one? Or is this...

BROUSSEAU: The only permanent -- the only license they get, they get a license by the year for entertainment. An entertainment license and a liquor license is issued yearly. Anything above and beyond or different than that has to be permitted individually.

QUESTION: So in this case it would be an individual one?

BROUSSEAU: This would have had to be an individual one, that's correct.

QUESTION: Chief, I'm sorry, but are you saying that it's both the state fire marshal as well as your office that they would have had to get permission from? BROUSSEAU: That's correct.

QUESTION: And who is it who would have had to obtain the permission, is it the pyrotechnician, is it the owner of the club, who is it?

BROUSSEAU: It's yes to all of those.

QUESTION: Yes to all of those?

BROUSSEAU: Yes.

QUESTION: Both have to get permission?

BROUSSEAU: Yes.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

BROUSSEAU: They did not get permission through our department.

QUESTION: Chief, again, the band, the band, the pyrotechnician and ...

BROUSSEAU: That's correct.

QUESTION: Chief, the band, the pyrotechnician and the club owners are all supposed to apply for that permit?

BROUSSEAU: That's correct.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: The band's pyrotechnician?

BROUSSEAU: That would be something that the state fire marshal would have to answer you for.

QUESTION: Is that three different permits, or they just sign off on one permit?

BROUSSEAU: That would be separate licensing for pyrotechnicians through the state fire marshal's office. And then a separate permit through the town.

QUESTION: So chief, they are saying no permits and no license was issued?

BROUSSEAU: That's correct.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

BROUSSEAU: They're not required.

QUESTION: Not required?

BROUSSEAU: No. QUESTION: Chief, can you give us an idea, you gave us an idea of where the bulk of bodies were found in the front. Can you give us an idea where the remaining bodies were? Were they clustered together or were they separated?

BROUSSEAU: They were clustered together in various areas of the building. At the front door, as I stated before, to the right of the front door towards the stage, there were some in the back bar area. And also in the rest rooms.

QUESTION: Were they near exits?

BROUSSEAU: Unfortunately, not too many were near the other three exits, no.

QUESTION: What does that tell you, from a fire perspective...

BROUSSEAU: From a fire perspective, I'll answer that question the same way I did at the previous news conference. It would behoove people when they go into a place to see where the nearest fire exit is. If only the victims had known and been able to use, because of their knowledge of the other three fire exits, I won't say we wouldn't be sitting here and standing here tonight, but the death toll would have been quite a bit less.

QUESTION: So none were at the other exits?

BROUSSEAU: There were several. But not the extent as in the front exit.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

BROUSSEAU: Yes.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

BROUSSEAU: Yes. I would believe so.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

BROUSSEAU: That I can't tell you. I'm going to guesstimate, 1950s, early 1960s.

QUESTION: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) sprinklers, chief?

BROUSSEAU: It's called grandfather. In other words, before the court required sprinklers the building was built, so it was grandfathered in. And in order to compensate for that, we required that they have a working alarm system, which it did, and a correct amount of fire exits, working emergency lighting and so forth. And all of those had been complied with.

QUESTION: Did the alarm go off?

BROUSSEAU: Yes, it did.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

BROUSSEAU: Fire extinguishers were in place as of the date of our last license inspection, which was December 31. All extinguishers were in place and were properly maintained.

QUESTION: How many are there? How many fire extinguishers?

BROUSSEAU: That would depend on the square footage of the building, and I really -- I don't have an answer for that, because I don't know.

QUESTION: Chief, how do you feel to finally be able to tell us you don't think you'll be taking any more bodies out of there?

BROUSSEAU: I wish I could tell you I feel relief, but I don't. The only way I would feel relief is if this didn't happen.

QUESTION: What kind of respect and dignity have your men and women shown the remains?

BROUSSEAU: The utmost respect and dignity.

QUESTION: How you handle each and every person that comes out?

BROUSSEAU: When a victim was being recovered and brought to the front of the building, we had three fire chaplains on the scene, stop, they said several prayers over the remains. We removed our helmets in respect and they would pass through and we'd go back to work.

QUESTION: Chief, I want to make sure I understand, when you said that both the pyrotechnician the club owner and the band would have to apply for this permit, would it be literally three separate documents?

BROUSSEAU: It's two permits. A license and a permit.

QUESTION: OK. A license and a permit. Would those be from each of those would have to do that? Three times two and six.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Whoever the agent is for whoever's doing it has to cover the licenses. Let's not get hung up whether it's the owner or the band. Somebody has to get a license. And the fire chief has to make sure that the performance capacity is within.

QUESTION: Right, but obviously this is one of the big bones -- could be a bone of contention here as to who, if they're all points fingers at each other.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That certainly may be a bone of contention among them. But nobody got a license.

QUESTION: The person with the license is the one who actually operates the pyrotechnics?

BROUSSEAU: That I'm not sure. I'm not sure who was the pyrotechnician there. I don't know that.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Chief, one license, two permits, is that it?

BROUSSEAU: No.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a state requirement.

BROUSSEAU: Through the state fire marshal.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Through the state fir marshal. Then there's a local permit. It's a competency license or whatever they call it.

BROUSSEAU: The majority of them were burns.

QUESTION: Chief, at the outset of the search and recovery this morning, did you expect to find more bodies than you did? you expect to find less?

QUESTION: OK. So then who applies for the local permit?

BROUSSEAU: We had a pretty good idea of what we were going to find based upon different information that we had as far as accountability, vehicles that were still present and information that we had with the help of the police department with automobile registrations and so forth.

QUESTION: So unfortunately 95 is not a surprising number?

BROUSSEAU: Ninety-five is a shocking number.

QUESTION: Chief, we know how small West Warwick is and how small this state is. Every one knows some one who either was inside or (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

BROUSSEAU: That's an accurate statement. Yes. We have people who knew people. I myself know somebody who perished.

QUESTION: Who was that?

BROUSSEAU: I'd rather not give out that information.

QUESTION: Chief, where do you stand with the identification and location process?

BROUSSEAU: There's been a -- a family crisis center has been set up at the Crown Plaza Hotel in Lowell and the State Emergency Management Agency and, with the help of the Red Cross is taking care of that. The board of health is doing that as well.

QUESTION: Have you been able to identify everybody you've pulled out?

BROUSSEAU: No, that's a whole separate issue.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The State Department of Health has all kinds of expertise trying to do the identification. It is not being done here. It is being done at the department of health.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

BROUSSEAU: We will continue throughout the evening gathering what evidence the fire marshal would gather, whatever evidence he thinks is necessary. And then we will begin to wrap up this end of the investigation...

BLITZER: The fire chief in West Warwick, Rhode Island, Charles Hall. Very sad, obviously very depressed, working hard, working with all those men and women around the clock to try to do what they can.

A horrible situation. At least 95 people now confirmed dead in that nightclub fire, the place called the Station last night. It's a deadly nightclub fire. You're looking at live pictures now from overhead.

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