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Feb. 22, 2003

Acoustic foam tiles cited in fire’s speed

Acoustic foam tiles installed around the stage at The Station nightclub accelerated the fire that quickly engulfed the 53-year-old wooden structure and led to the deaths of nearly 100 people, according to local fire officials.

But even though this foam insulation is known by fire safety and building industry officials to be highly flammable, owners of the nightclub were not required to install fire sprinklers because of its size and age. If it were built today, a nightclub of the same size would have to have sprinklers.

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A search of public records in the West Warwick, R.I., Property Assessors Office did not show a building permit for installation of the tiles, which a former manager at the club said were installed two to three years ago after neighbors complained about late-night noise. Specialists at national and international building code organizations said that most towns would require an owner to obtain a building permit to install these tiles. But yesterday it could not immediately be learned if that was the case in West Warwick.

The club passed a fire inspection Dec. 31, officials said.

Most sound-dampening tiles are made of polyurethane foam, which can have fire-retarding chemicals added when they are made. Fire officials in West Warwick said they did not know if the tiles at The Station were treated with such chemicals. However, the officials described the ceiling as “highly combustible” during a news conference yesterday.

Tim Ford, who said he was a former manager at The Station, described the tiles as similar to material used in sound studios, a grayish tile that “looked a little bit” like sound-deflecting egg- carton- shaped foam.

Fire safety officials said these tiles catch fire easily. “Untreated polyurethane is a highly flammable substance,” said Donald P. Bliss, president of the National Fire Marshals Association and fire marshal for the state of New Hampshire. “It basically burns like gasoline. When it burns, it melts and spreads the fire and will ignite anything it touches.”

Ken Rhodes, a senior staff engineer at the fire protection division of Underwriters Laboratories, a nonprofit group in Northbrook, Ill., that tests products and materials for safety, said burning foam insulation would spread fire almost instantly. “With the high temperatures created and the volatile gases released from the foam, the flames would just be racing across the whole ceiling, whether or not it was a combustible ceiling.”

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