Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Fire in a crowded theater: from wet blanket to sprinkler system

Yelling 'fire' in a crowded theater.

It's become a cliche for inciting panic--although, actually, it seems that the original phrase in the Oliver Wendell Holmes decision is "shouting" rather than "yelling." It is forbidden to do so because of the possibility of inciting a deadly stampede.

But even more deadly and dangerous is the panic that sets in when there is a real fire inside an actual theater. The metaphor originates in the knowledge of the reality. In such a situation, the panic is compounded with the fire itself to cause a lethal mix in which people are killed by a combination of burns, smoke inhalation, and trampling. And, tragically, that is exactly what seems to have happened on September 5 in a theater near Cairo, Egypt. Twenty-nine people died.

Just a few days ago I wrote a post about the phenomenon of stampedes. It was occasioned by the terrible stampede deaths on an Iraqi bridge during a Shi'ite religious festival. In my research for that post, I discovered that

there are three main categories of venues that would appear to favor stampedes: the soccer stadium (or other large sporting event); the crowded nightclub in which a fire breaks out; and the religious pilgrimage.

Tragically, just a few days later, the Egyptian theater fire has occurred, almost identical to situation number two--fire in a crowded nightclub. It's unclear as yet how many deaths were due in this case to the fire and how many to the stampede, but what is clear is how incredibly criminally negligent the theater company was.

Here's a description of the stage and how it was set up:

The play was set in a zoo, and the stage was done up like a cave inside one of the animal cages: The ceiling, floor and walls were covered with paper bags painted to resemble stone, and in the middle of the stage was a "mountain" also made of paper. There were candles set up all over the set, survivors said.

In the final scene, one of the actors was shaking another character to wake him up, and the movement knocked over one of the candles....

Yassin said there were only two exit doors from the theater, but one of them was covered in the same paper as the set and was in flames. So the crowd rushed for the other. As they streamed out, a piece of wood fell, partially blocking it. He and some others managed to climb around it, but it slowed the escape, he said.

So we have a stage wreathed in paper, live candle flames being used "all over," and inadequate exits. A recipe for disaster, and disaster is exactly what happened.

Over time, we in this country and others have managed to compile a host of tedious regulations concerning, for example, the number of working exits required in a theater or nightclub, prohibitions on open flames in theaters, and the need for flame-retardant sets (see here for a typical list of theater rules, particularly numbers 8 and 9). I wonder whether Egypt has similar rules. Perhaps they do, but if so, there certainly was no enforcement in this case.

Even in this country, regulations do not necessarily prevent such tragedies from happening, especially if the regulations are not followed. After all, there were a bunch of regulations in place in West Warwick, Rhode Island, but it didn't stop the Station Nightclub from burning down when the rules were apparently violated, killing ninety-seven people (see here for details of this and another nightclub stampede, this time in Chicago. In the latter case the panic was sparked by pepper spray and rumors of a terrorist attack, and therefore somewhat resembled the Iraqi bridge stampede).

Laws about what is allowed and not allowed at public assemblies and theaters may seem picayune and needlessly restrictive at times. But they are the result of bitter experience with what can happen in such venues, and are necessary to protect the public. In Rhode Island, there was no requirement for a sprinkler system. But the following (from the same article) is a case of how important such a system can be, especially when working in combination with well-trained staff and adequate exits:

In yet another incident on February 17th, The Fine Line Music Cafe in the downtown Minneapolis warehouse district sustained an estimated $1.5 million in damage when Seattle band The Jet City Fix set off pyrotechnics during their encore and ignited the club's ceiling. Admirably avoiding a tragedy, the staff quickly evacuated the 120 patrons without incident or injury, and the fire was extinguished within 15 minutes. The Fine Line had a sprinkler system, which activated during the fire - something the Rhode Island club was not required to have.

We've come a long way from the days when theaters were lit by candles or gas jet, and being burned alive was part of the risk a performer took. As an ex-dancer and theater reviewer, I've long been aware of the tragic story of Emma Livry, up-and-coming young ballet star of the Paris Opera in mid-19th century, who died in 1863 at the age of twenty-one (I've corrected some spelling errors in the following that occurred in the original):

Livry refused to have her costume flame-retarded because it caused the material to turn yellow and stiff. She was required to sign a release stating she was willing to take the chance. As she danced her tulle skirt came into contact with the gas jet and caught fire. Two male dancers tried to extinguish the flames, but unsuccessfully. She suffered severe burns and died eight months later from complications. From that time until the advent of electric stage lighting, blankets soaked in water were kept ready on both sides of the stage. Hence, "wet blanket."

So even then there were attempts to protect the performers: flame-retardant costumes and wet blankets. And sometimes, as still happens today, performers intent on creating a spectacular effect tried to circumvent the rules. It would be one thing if the performers were knowingly risking only their own lives, but the rules are in place so that they don't take their audiences with them--even if the rules can sometimes throw a metaphorical wet blanket over the proceedings.


At 3:02 AM, September 08, 2005, Blogger camojack said...

How 'bout yelling theatre in a crowded fire?!
(Not mine; perhaps you've heard it?)


Post a Comment

<< Home

Powered by Blogger