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Videotape shows pyrotechnics risk

The fire at The Station nightclub began after a pyrotechnic display on stage.

WPRI-TV

The fire at The Station nightclub began after a pyrotechnic display on stage.

Several pyrotechnic industry professionals who saw video footage of a West Warwick, R.I., nightclub fire, which broke out during a heavy metal concert, say the band’s fiery stage display - the suspected cause of an inferno that killed at least 96 people - appeared to burn too high, too hot, and too long to be used in a club that size.

“Indoor displays are quick; they last only a few seconds,” said Michael J. Fox of New Castle, Pa.-based fireworks firm Pyrotecnico. “What I saw were flames that lasted a really long time.”

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Investigators haven’t determined the cause of Thursday night’s deadly fire during the Great White show at The Station.

But they are focusing on a fountain of sparks the band used as part of its performance that apparently ignited soundproofing material behind the stage, sending flames up the paneled walls and across the ceiling. Fire officials said the entire club was engulfed within minutes, trapping hundreds.

Pyrotechnics - devices that contain a mixture of chemicals designed to produce colored flames, sparks, or sounds - range from small signal flares to large outdoor fireworks displays, said John A. Conkling, an adjunct professor of chemistry at Washington College in Maryland. Most involve an oxidizer - potassium nitrate, for example - which is mixed with a fuel like charcoal, aluminum powder, or even sugar. The fuel controls the burn, Conkling said; metallic fuels like aluminum burn hotter and faster than fuels like charcoal or sugar.

Julie L. Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association in Bethesda, Md., said, “I’m not certain what kind of device that was, but clearly it was not appropriate” for a small nightclub like The Station.

Fox said that responsible pyrotechnic operators put on indoor shows safely each day in places like Las Vegas and Disney World, but disasters can happen if they cut corners - using outdoor effects inside, for example, or skirting safety requirements.

He said most professionals follow requirements set by local authorities, which often are modeled after guidelines set by the Quincy-based National Fire Protection Association. According to the group’s standards, users of indoor pyrotechnics must have a permit, submit a safety plan to authorities before a show, outline qualifications of the pyrotechnic operator, and confirm that the set, scenery, and rigging materials are flame- resistant.

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