Remarks by Dr. James Hill
Acting Director, Building and Fire Research Laboratory
National Institute of Standards and Technology
The Station Nightclub Fire Investigation Media Briefing
November 25, 2003
My name is Jim Hill. I'm the Acting Director of the Building and Fire Research Laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (often referred to as NIST) in Gaithersburg, Md. Several of us have come to Providence today to talk to you about an investigation we are conducting of The Station nightclub fire that occurred in West Warwick, R.I., on February 20, 2003.
I want to thank all of you for attending. We have two purposes for being here. First, we want to inform the people of Rhode Island about our investigation and the progress we are making. Second, and most importantly, we have come to appeal to those citizens who have information and details about The Station nightclub and this fire. If they are in a position to share information with us, we urge them to do so by calling us at 877-451-8001. We will tell you what information we need during the course of this press briefing. The screen behind me indicates other ways people can communicate with us. Providing us key information could greatly enhance our investigation. When we complete the investigation, we want to be able to provide the kind of recommendations that could prevent this kind of tragedy from being repeated in other communities around the United States in the years to come.
Some of you may not be familiar with NIST. We are a non-regulatory agency of the Department of Commerce. Our mission is to use measurement, standards, and technology to enhance the productivity of industry, facilitate trade, and improve the quality of life for all Americans.
The part of NIST I represent, the Building and Fire Research Laboratory, focuses on the construction industry. We have always worked hard to make buildings better, safer, and more secure for its occupants.
We have a strong complement of structural, fire, mechanical, and electrical engineers. We have investigated more than 30 major building structural failures and major building fires in order to learn from those disasters and conduct research to prevent them from recurring.
On October 1, 2002, those activities took on new meaning. The President signed into law the National Construction Safety Team Act. We are now specifically authorized to conduct investigations of major building failures where there has been a substantial loss of life or the potential for a substantial loss of life.
There are at least two things you need to understand about this authority:
1. We are authorized to establish the likely technical causes of the building failure but precluded from establishing blame for the building failure.
2. We are to recommend changes in building practices, standards, and model building and fire codes and, as appropriate, research to be conducted that could lead to positive changes.
Since we are not a regulatory agency, we will not mandate any changes to standards or building and fire codes. That is the responsibility of standards-developing organizations and state and local governments. However, after our investigation we will work actively with them to encourage the changes.
In addition, no part of any report resulting from our investigations may be admitted as evidence or used in any suit or action for damages, and NIST employees are not permitted to serve as expert witnesses.
We have launched two investigations to date under this new authority. First, is an investigation of the fires and collapses of the World Trade Center buildings after the aircrafts' impact where almost 3,000 people were killed. Second, is an investigation of The Station nightclub fire where the lives of 100 individuals were lost. This investigation of The Station nightclub fire was launched because of the potential we saw for making meaningful recommendations with widespread applicability to this kind of disaster nationwide.
Let me conclude my remarks by giving you our message for the day. We need help from the people of Rhode Island.
We are trying to establish five things:
1. the conditions of the building prior to the fire,
2. an accurate picture of the fire spread through the building,
3. the response of the structure,
4. the performance of the installed fire protection systems, and 5. the behavior of the occupants trying to escape.
In order to do this thoroughly and accurately, we need:
1. the details of the building contents,
2. the building geometry, including window and door openings, and
3. any first-hand knowledge and observations of how the fire spread within the building.
You, the news media, can be invaluable to us if you can encourage people with this information to step forward and help us.
Now I will turn the podium over to Dr. Bill Grosshandler. He is the Chief of our Fire Research Division and the lead investigator of The Station nightclub fire. He will provide you a brief status report on the investigation and give you further information on our data needs.