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NCST Technical Investigation Plan - The Station Nightclub

National Construction Safety Team Technical Investigation Plan1: The Station Nightclub, West Warwick, RI; February 20, 2003


The purpose of the investigation is to establish the likely technical cause or causes of the building failure that led to a high number of casualties. All technical aspects will be documented, including the conditions of the building prior to the fire, the fire spread through the building following ignition, the response of the structure to the fire, the performance of installed fire protection systems, the behavior of the occupants in the evacuation process, and the activities of the emergency responders. The Team will recommend, as necessary, specific improvements to building standards, codes and practices based upon the findings, and will recommend any research and other appropriate actions needed to improve the structural fire safety of buildings and evacuation procedures.

Guiding Principles

The technical investigation will be conducted independently and objectively, with consideration of the concerns and issues of all interested parties, and within the limits of available resources. It will be coordinated with Federal, State and local entities that are conducting investigations or sponsoring research into this building failure. Investigative priority will be relinquished to law enforcement agencies conducting ongoing criminal investigations. Actions will be taken to ensure that evidence is preserved. No findings of fault nor negligence will be assigned to any individual or organization.

General Approach

The investigation consists of the following major elements:

  • Identification of technical issues and major hypotheses requiring investigation through consultations with experts in fire protection engineering, emergency evacuation, and members of other investigative teams.
  • Data collection from the building owner and nightclub employees, local authorities, contractors and suppliers, building and fire protection design documents, records, plans, and specifications, video and photographic data, field data, interviews and other oral and written accounts from building occupants and emergency responders, and other witnesses.
  • Analysis and comparison of building and fire codes and practices, and review and analysis of practices used in operation of the building.
  • Collection and analysis of physical evidence, including material specimens and other forensic evidence to the extent they have been collected or are otherwise available.
  • Simulation and analysis of phenomena (with associated uncertainties), including fire spread, smoke movement, tenability, occupant behavior and response, evacuation issues, operation of active and passive fire protection system.
  • Testing to provide additional data and verify simulation predictions.
  • Preparation of final report, peer review by established NIST Editorial Review Board, augmented by the National Construction Safety Team Federal Advisory Committee.

Specific Tasks

The investigation is organized into the following specific tasks:

1. Establishment of initial conditions
2. Materials testing
3. Reconstruction of thermal and tenability environment
4. Determination of occupant behavior and egress
5. Documentation of emergency response
6. Examination of the impact of sprinklers on survivability
7. Identification of building and fire codes that warrant revision

1. Establishment of initial conditions

The conditions in the nightclub prior to the fire will be determined by examining construction plans, maintenance records, and building inspections; through videos, photographs, news articles, and measurements/observations of the site after the fact; and through discussions with contractors, the building owner, employees, survivors, and witnesses familiar with the operation of the building on similar occasions. Information will be collected on the materials of construction and contents; the location, size and conditions of doors, windows, and ventilation; the installed fire protection systems; and the number of occupants and their approximate locations. From this information we will

  • develop a computer-based reconstruction of the interior of the nightclub from dimensioned drawings, video, and still photos;
  • determine overall building properties including type of truss construction, type of roof, and forced ventilation system;
  • determine material properties of wall, floor, ceiling, and furnishings;
  • determine location, size, and status of all exits, windows, and vents;
  • determine location, status, and type of installed fire protection systems including fire alarms, smoke detectors, and fire extinguishers; and
  • establish number and probable location of band, club employees, and customers for a typical performance as well as this specific performance.

2. Materials Testing

Small-scale experiments will be conducted to provide additional data on materials of construction and contents that affect the growth of the fire. These may include

  • cone calorimeter experiments on exemplar interior finish materials – convoluted foam, wall paneling, ceiling tiles, carpeting and any other materials that may be identified as contributing to the fuel load inside the structure. On each material a series of experiments will be conducted to determine the ignition properties of the material as well as the heat release rates and smoke production over a range of incident heat fluxes ranging from 15 kW/m2 to 70 kW/m2;
  • wall and corner fire tests in the Large Fire Laboratory with convoluted-foam-covered wood paneled walls to develop heat release rate time histories to use as source terms in computer reconstructions;
  • standard tests for flammability of plastic materials and standard tests for surface burning characteristics of building materials on the interior finish materials as a means of establishing flame-spread and smoke-developed values to relate to the building codes; and
  • thermal response experiments on exemplar heat detectors.

3. Reconstruction of thermal and tenability environment

The fire spread and survivability within the building will be reconstructed using computer models. Information on the location and cause of fatalities for each victim (as provided in the medical examiner's report) will help determine the tenability and thermal conditions in the room at their time of death. The following steps will be used for the reconstruction:

  • Based on data developed from the first two tasks, generate an FDS (Fire Dynamic Simulator) model of the building.
  • Examine the impact of interior finishes. The first model would be run with inert interior finish and the two source term (foam covered walls) fires.
  • Subsequent models would incorporate combustible ceiling materials, combustible wall lining materials and finally floor coverings and furnishings. In each case, the extent of fire development, smoke generation and estimations of tenability based on thermal and gas concentrations would be made. Ventilation changes to the building such as opening doors and windows will be developed from the WPRI-TV videotape and witness testimony.

4. Determination of occupant behavior and egress

The emergency evacuation and occupant responses will be analyzed to better understand the impediments to safe egress encountered by the occupants. The analysis will include

  • a comparison of the life safety features in the structure with requirements from national model building and fire codes;
  • an egress of occupants calculation using simple hydraulic-type models as well as more complex behavior-based models (A range of egress times will be developed for comparison with the fire conditions predicted by FDS.);
  • an examination of the parameters that affected egress, including hazard recognition and response (1st, 2nd, 3rd actions), staff response, blood alcohol levels of victims, age and sex of occupants, location and identification of exits, condition of exits, and changing conditions inside structure (i.e. smoke and heat build-up, loss of lighting); and a comparison to similar incidents (e.g., Arundel Park Hall, Chicago nightclub, Fine Line Music Café, MN).

An expert in human behavior and egress modeling will be contracted for aspects of this task.

5. Documentation of emergency response (USFA to lead)

Collect emergency response data in cooperation with the local fire department to document procedures and operation of equipment. Identify successful operations and technical difficulties.

Records of interest include dispatch logs, recorded radio communications, run logs, 911 records, data recorded by the Fire Department operations and the Police Department , and fire ground positioning of emergency apparatus. Information will also be sought on operations and function of communications systems, on-site emergency information systems, fire alarm panels, standpipes and fire hoses, and other emergency equipment. Data will be collected from witnesses, those in control of emergency operations, and first responders.

6. Examination of the impact of sprinklers on survivability

The impact on survivability will be examined had a sprinkler system been installed, all other conditions being the same.

  • Determine sprinkler design criteria that comply with NFPA 13 for this occupancy.
  • Identify the recreation from task 3 that provides the best match with the timeline developed from the WPRI-TV video and witness statements.
  • Add a sprinkler system to the model, and conduct a parametric study to suggest how the tenability conditions might have been altered for the same initial conditions and ignition sequence.

7. Identification of building and fire codes that warrant revision

Identify specific areas in building and fire codes, standards and practices that warrant revision based upon findings. Recommendations for revisions will be made when they are justified based upon the technical findings from the other tasks.

NCST Members and Liaisons

The NCST Act requires that at least one member of the Team be from NIST, and that experts who are not employees of NIST shall also be appointed to the Team by the NIST Director. The members from NIST are listed below. Additional Team members will be appointed from among the primary federal agency liaisons and key private sector experts, as deemed appropriate.

NIST members

  • William Grosshandler (Lead Investigator), NIST, Building and Fire Research Laboratory
  • Nelson Bryner, NIST, Building and Fire Research Laboratory
  • Daniel Madrzykowski, NIST, Building and Fire Research Laboratory

Primary Federal agency liaisons

  • Kenneth Kuntz, DHS/FEMA, US Fire Administration
  • Christopher Porreca, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms

State/local agencies and liaisons

  • Rhode Island State Fire Marshal's Office (Irving J. Owens)
  • West Warwick Fire Department (Charles Hall)
  • State of Rhode Island Department of Public Health (Patricia A. Nolan)
  • State of Rhode Island Office of the Medical Examiner (Elizabeth A. LaPosta)
  • Rhode Island State Attorney General's office (to be established)
  • Rhode Island State Office of Emergency Management (to be established)

Secondary Federal agency liaisons

  • Dept. of Homeland Security, Office for Domestic Preparedness (Patricia Malak)
  • Dept. of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Kipp Hartmann)
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Lynda Doll)

Private sector contracts

The assistance of private sector experts may be solicited to supplement internal expertise and to accelerate the publication of the final report. Contracts are contemplated in the following areas:

Task Title Area of Expertise
2 Standard Flammability Tests Fire Test Laboratory
4 Analysis of Emergency Egress Human Behavior and Egress
5 Documentation of Emergency Response* Fire Department Operations
6 Parametric Study of Sprinkler Impact Fire Dynamics Simulations
7 Building Code Review Building Codes

*US Fire Administration contract

Budget and timeframe

NIST appropriated funds will be used for the salaries of NIST staff, Team travel, materials, testing, contracts, report dissemination, and administrative expenses. The US Fire Administration will cover contracting expenses for task 5. The investigation will operate within the charter of the NCST Act. The goal is to complete the technical investigation in as timely a manner as possible, consistent with the relinquishment of priority to state and local authorities conducting criminal investigations. A review copy of the final report will be provided to these same state and local authorities.


1 The NCST Act requires that the Team relinquish investigative priority in the event of a criminal investigation. We are assessing how this will affect the Rhode Island investigation and its schedule. The information in this plan represents our best present thinking but is subject to change.

Created June 30, 2010, Updated August 25, 2016