The "Deadly Nightclubs" graphic accompanying a Feb. 22 news article on the Rhode Island nightclub fire reported that the cause of the deadliest club fire in the United States -- at the Cocoanut Grove club in Boston in November 1942 -- is unknown.
The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts described the cause and spread of the fire: "A bartender in the Melody Lounge noticed that an electric light bulb which was in or near the cocoanut husks of an artificial palm tree in the corner had been turned off and that the corner was dark. He directed a 16-year-old bar boy . . . to cause the bulb to be lighted. . . . [T]he bar boy got a stool, lighted a match in order to see the bulb, turned the bulb in its socket, and thus lighted it. . . . Apparently the flame of the match had ignited the palm tree and that had speedily ignited the low cloth ceiling near it, for both flamed up almost instantly. The fire spread with great rapidity. . . . Soon after the fire started, the lights in the night club went out. The smoke had a peculiar odor. The crowd were panic stricken, and rushed and pushed in every direction through the night club, screaming and overturning tables and chairs in their attempts to escape." (Commonwealth v. Welansky, June 5, 1944.) The death toll was 492.
The club owner, Barnett Welansky (who was not on the premises on the night of the fire), had failed to address:
* Defective wiring.
* The installation of flammable decorations.
* The absence of fire doors.
* The absence of "proper means of egress properly maintained" and "sufficient proper" exits.
Mr. Welansky was convicted on numerous counts of involuntary manslaughter and received a sentence of 12 to 15 years at hard labor.
The case is famous because the court used it as a vehicle to explain when a defendant's conduct goes beyond mere negligence and rises to the level of wanton or reckless conduct necessary for a manslaughter conviction. In effect, the court ruled that Mr. Welansky disregarded a substantial and unjustifiable risk that his actions and inactions would cause death to others.
Whether the same can be said of the owners of the Station nightclub in Rhode Island or of the band Great White (which used the pyrotechnics that caused the deadly fire) remains to be seen. What is clear is that many so-called accidents have criminal consequences and that those who cause these accidents can end up in prison.
IRA P. ROBBINS
The writer is a professor of law at American University.
As a student at Yale University, I attended numerous on-campus events. Student hosts of the events were required, presumably by the Yale fire marshal, to make a statement similar to the announcement made on airplanes before takeoff: "In the unlikely event of a fire, exits are located here and here."
Perhaps the statement seemed nerdy to students, but the deadly nightclub fire in Rhode Island illustrates that adding a similar requirement to the safety codes for public venues might facilitate rapid and safe evacuations.