On December 4, 2009, partygoers packed the Lame Horse, a nightclub in the Russian city of Perm, to celebrate the club’s eighth anniversary. Then, in an instant, fire broke out and chaos ensured.
Details of the incident were captured in a video shot by a patron and circulated throughout international media. The video shows dancers performing a choreographed routine to Queen’s “We Will Rock You” when a host suddenly stops the music. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are on fire! Leave the hall!” he exclaims over the microphone. Pyrotechnics used during the performance had ignited a fire that was spreading through the ceiling, which was coated with a highly combustible combination of plastic and dry straw. The plastic was expanded polystyrene, a material that produces toxic smoke containing high levels of carbon monoxide during combustion. As occupants made their way towards the exit, many were unaware that the black smoke filling the building was more life-threatening than the flames. “When I turned back, I saw drops falling off the ceiling and then there was a lot of smoke,” one survivor told the BBC.
People trying to escape were funneled through a single exit, trapping many. Smoke overcame patrons who were not among the first to evacuate. “People just broke down the doors because panic began. Everything was filled with smoke and you could not see anything,” one witness told the New York Times.
Occupants who escaped observed another horrific scene: bodies were piled in the street as people frantically searched for missing friends. Hundreds needed medical attention, but responders were unable to transport all casualties to the hospital. The fire resulted in 156 fatalities, making it the deadliest fire in post-Soviet Russia.
The poor enforcement of building codes was immediately cited as a primary cause of the fire, as the building lacked both fire sprinklers and a fire alarm system. Accusations began to surface that inspections in Russia were sometimes used as an opportunity for officials to demand bribes, rather than enforce an acceptable level of fire safety. Although the Lame Horse had been previously cited for unsafe conditions, the deficiencies were never rectified. “The authorities are directly to blame, along with the corruption and the criminality of firemen,” one resident told the BBC. Four people, including the club’s co-owner, were taken into police custody and charged with manslaughter.
In the year prior to Lame Horse, Russia had experienced roughly 18,000 fire deaths, five times more than US totals during the same period. In addition to underscoring the Russian fire problem, the incident also drew immediate and accurate comparisons to the 2003 Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island.
The events of the Station nightclub fire were captured by a local television station while filming a story on nightclub safety. The entertainment venue featured a headliner band whose set included the activation of gerbs, a pyrotechnic used to create a fountain of sparks. When the pyrotechnics were activated in front of the drummer’s alcove, sparks ignited the walls near the platform. The walls consisted of expanded polyurethane, a plastic product similar to that used in Lame Horse, which was intended to provide sound insulation for the club. The initial flame spread was gradual, but as the fire began to develop more rapidly, patrons recognized that this was not part of the act. Occupants evacuated through a corridor leading to the main entrance, and eventually, people began to pile up at the front door. A fire investigation report would later reveal that the building was not protected by a fire sprinkler system, and while the club was equipped with a fire alarm system, it was not connected to a central station or to the local fire department alarm box. The final death count was 100 people, making it the fourth-deadliest nightclub fire in US history. Three people, including owners of the nightclub and the manager of the headlining band, were charged with manslaughter by a state grand jury.
History shows us that people are at risk in assembly occupancies that share certain types of characteristics. For example, the presence of highly combustible interior finishes, contents, and furnishings have been frequently cited in fatal nightclub fires, including Cocoanut Grove (furnishings and decorations), the Rhythm Club (dried moss hung from the ceiling), and the Beverly Hills Supper Club (wall and floor coverings). The overcrowded nature of these spaces and the insufficient means of egress that are frequent in nightclubs, also hinder fire safety. Furthermore, these occupancies are not always protected by a fire sprinkler system, either because they are not required by the jurisdiction or because the prescriptive requirements have been overlooked.
Nightclub fire safety is not a problem exclusive to specific countries; it is a global issue. In the last 50 years, we have seen nightclub fires with over 100 fatalities in different countries, including Brazil, China, Argentina, the Philippines, France, the US, and Russia. The details of the Lame Horse Fire and its similarities with the Station nightclub tragedy highlight two larger global issues, inadequate nightclub regulations and subpar enforcement practices.
This article originally appeared in the NFPA Journal. For more information go to www.nfpa.org/nfpajournal