Updated: 04-18-2003 09:13:40 AM

Rhode Island Looks at Clubs Like One in Fire

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BROOKE DONALD
Associated Press

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) -- Hundreds of nightclubs, churches and other public buildings in Rhode Island are wood-framed structures without sprinkler systems, much like the nightclub where 99 people died in a fire, a state inspection found.

An inspections sweep ordered by the governor after the Feb. 20 fire at The Station, in West Warwick, notes that at least 340 of the more than 850 establishments surveyed share characteristics with the club: They are wood-framed buildings without sprinklers that serve alcohol.

``The data gives us a good inventory of what we have and how we need to address safety concerns,'' said state Fire Marshal Irving J. Owens.

The findings, released by the governor's office, also could influence how the state pursues its criminal investigation into the blaze, and how lawyers prepare their defense, should criminal charges be filed.

``One of the potential theories is that someone could be charged with involuntary manslaughter,'' said Edward Roy, former president of the Rhode Island Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. ``Once in a courtroom, a lawyer could argue, 'Hey, there's 300 other buildings just like ours, we were going along with the industry standard.'''

In the weeks after the fire, state and local officials said The Station _ like many buildings recently inspected _ wasn't required to have a sprinkler system because of its age and size.

However, the state building code commissioner told a legislative panel that The Station might have been required to have sprinklers when the building changed from being a restaurant to a club in the 1990s.

Officials have blamed the start of the fire on a band's pyrotechnics display. Sparks from the fireworks ignited foam placed around the club's stage as soundproofing. The fire spread rapidly through the one-story wooden building, engulfing it within minutes and trapping people as they tried to flee.

Owens said he will propose mandating sprinklers in certain types of gathering places to lawmakers studying building fire and safety codes.

The so-called grandfather laws that have kept older buildings from sprinkler requirements are not unique to Rhode Island, said Don Bliss, president of the National Fire Protection Association.

``My assumption is that Rhode Island is not going to be different than any other part of the country, especially New England,'' he said.

A spokesman for Attorney General Patrick Lynch said the state was aware of the data compiled by the governor's office and would discuss it with the fire marshal's office at ``the
appropriate time.''

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