On February 20, 2003, in the few minutes it takes to play a hard-rock standard, the fate of 462 unsuspecting nightclub patrons was determined with awful certainty. That night, the fourth-deadliest club fire in U.S. history occurred at a roadhouse in West Warwick, Rhode Island, called “The Station.” The blaze was ignited when pyrotechnics set off by Great White, an 80’s heavy-metal band, lit flammable polyurethane “egg-crate” foam sound insulation on the club’s walls. In less than five minutes, 96 people were burned alive and 200 more were injured, many catastrophically. The final death toll topped out, three months later, at the eerily unlikely round number of 100.
The story of the fire, its causes, and its legal and human-tragedy aftermath, is one of human lives put at risk by petty economic decisions – by a band, club owners, promoters, building inspectors and product manufacturers. Any one of those decisions could have potentially avoided the tragedy. Together, however, they formed a fatal critical mass.
The course of obtaining legal redress, both criminal and civil, was similarly shaped by economics generally unknown to the public. The imperfections of the criminal justice system and the arcane calculus of the tort system gave rise to outcomes which, to some victims, were as troubling as the fire itself. The tragedy was a stark example of what happens when cupidity and stupidity trump concern for human life.