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Nightclub blaze sends dead-serious warning

Fire marshals in Medford and Ashland say they hope tragedies like Thursday night's disaster in Rhode Island won't happen in the Rogue Valley.

But there are no guarantees.

It could happen anywhere if people choose not to follow the fire code and state law, said David Hard, assistant fire chief and fire marshal with the Ashland Fire Department.

From proper exits, fire extinguishers and sprinklers to flameproof decorations and maximum occupancy, club owners have a lot to be responsible for when it comes to customer safety.

Following two nightclub tragedies this week, local officials are reviewing policies and inspections.

Early Monday, 21 people died at a Chicago nightclub after a security guard used a crowd control spray which started a stampede.

At a West Warwick, R.I., club Thursday, at least 96 people died after the pyrotechnics for a Great White rock concert set the building on fire.

Jack Russell, lead singer for Great White, performed a solo show with a backing band at VIBES Main — in Medford in October. Russell escaped the fire in Rhode Island on Thursday.

There were no pyrotechnics for his Medford solo show, said Tom Cole, who runs VIBES. He said an incident like that in West Warwick could never happen at VIBES because it's a non-smoking facility.

We wouldn't let someone light up a cigarette, much less pyrotechnics, he said.

Because VIBES has activities seven days a week, ranging from senior citizen tai chi classes to dancing and family activities, we're not willing to jeopardize our facility in any way, he said, adding that the club's staff is involved in all productions at VIBES.

Chris Reising, Medford building safety director, said when a business first opens, the building department tells the owner how he or she has to comply with safety codes. Once the business is open, the fire marshal makes inspections.

But for the most part, it's really up to the owner to monitor the safety on a daily basis, he said.

You'd have to have a cop or a fireman at every single event at every place, he said.

Matt Roberts, who owns Cover Your Assets security service and handles security and safety for Ashland clubs, including Kat Wok and Vinyl Club, said incidents like the one in West Warwick are very unlikely to happen in Ashland. He said the Kat Wok and Vinyl Club are built of steel and concrete, not wood like the club in Rhode Island.

(The) buildings are safe according to code, he said.

He said all doors on the Kat Wok open out, which can help people exit a building safely and quickly. He said there may be potential for crowds bottle-necking when exiting the Vinyl Club because it is a small place.

Hard said Ashland owners and managers are pretty cooperative, but he's seen several violations.

In the past we've had rave bands show up in warehouses, he said. When we find out about it we shut it down.

He said a recent violation was a nightclub that had fire dancing, including people with flaming batons and flaming helmets. Permits weren't obtained for the performance.

Larry Anderson, deputy fire chief with the Medford Fire Department, said his crew inspects 4,200 sites once or twice a year, ranging from nightclubs and theaters to hospitals and schools. They also make drop-in visits.

He said the most common violations they see in Medford are locked or blocked exits.

Authorities said several exits were locked or blocked at the club in Chicago, while fleeing patrons in Rhode Island ignored three unlocked fire exits to head for the front door, which quickly became clogged with people trying to escape.

Anderson said inspectors found one Medford nightclub had a potential entrapment hazard, which he described as a large door that under the wrong conditions could have slammed shut. It has since been corrected, he said.

He said the Craterian Theater had a performance with a pyrotechnic display, and not only was a permit required, but the person running the show was certified and the inspectors reviewed a video of a previous show.

They did an exceptional job of doing it right, he said.

All officials agree, patrons need to be watchful.

Hard suggests, as on an airplane, patrons locate the exits when they enter a crowded area.

If you walk into a place that feels overcrowded, it probably is, said Hard, listing examples such as people seated in stairwells and aisles.

He said he not only recommends leaving such a venue, but contacting the fire department, too.

Reising said maybe building owners will be a little more careful after the recent tragedies.

Hopefully this is kind of a wake up call, said Reising. Hopefully people who run these things will take this a little more seriously.

Ann Landers, Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611

intern Justin Dalton contributed to this story.