I have been an audience member or on stage crew for more than a handful of performances in small clubs that involved the use of fire on a stage—without a careful examination of exits or the presence of functioning sprinkler systems. We always had a fire extinguisher or two around, of course, but those can stop being effective pretty quickly.
We were not being—in our minds—criminally negligent. All the performers in question had done what they were doing many times before. After you've done dangerous things for awhile with no dire consequences (think about driving, for example) you tend to stop thinking of them as so horribly dangerous that you are somewhat of a fool for even doing them. And pyro in small clubs has a pretty good safety track record, after all.
The safety record of small-club pyro was changed irrevocably last week when the Station in West Warwick, R.I., went up in flames, killing 97 people, thanks to a pyro display by rock band "Jack Russell's Great White." But this was, as far as I know, the first time anyone had been killed by this action which, according to "legal experts" quoted in The New York Times, is "so obviously hazardous that any defendant aware that they would be used might face essentially automatic liability."
The club and band are now engaged in a pathetic, if understandable, game of hot potato, with the band claiming they got club approval to use the pyro and the club saying they had no idea. On the club's side is Great White's detailed rider about their show, which doesn't mention a fireworks display. It would be fair to say that whoever is responsible is guilty of mass manslaughter, but that's for the courts to decide. Whatever their intentions—and from personal experience I know that they were nothing worse than wanting to provide an entertaining spectacle—they did something that led to many, many deaths. Financially, such liabilities, beyond the ability of most normal people to make good on, are the reason that human beings developed the market institution of insurance.
Of course, there is ultimately no making good on a life—and something unseemly tawdry about such huge loss of life for Jack Russell's Great White. A new Hannah Arendt could write a book on the banality of tragedy here—that the washed-up remnants of a one-hit-wonder hair-metal band from a past decade should be the cause of the hugest, by far, rock n' roll tragedy in our nation's history is mocking the very gods in rock n' roll heaven.
USA Today ran a detailed history of nightclub tragedies today. Careful consideration of the circumstances of past nightclub tragedies helps show that there are no hard-and-fast lessons about safety regulations to be learned from this tragedy, Nor is it likely that a similar tragedy in Chicago last week, where 21 people died in a stampede after a security guard used pepper spray to stop a fight in a crowded upstairs room, has much to teach us.
After all, the problem in the Chicago nightclub was that there were not enough exits to get the room up to code. The Station in Rhode Island had plenty of exits, but people—understandably in a mass panic—didn't choose them wisely. The Chicago nightclub had already been shut down by relevant safety officials. Legal requirements—especially given the inherent limitations in time, attention, and honesty of the human beings enforcing them—are never enough to ensure safety, and are probably the least part of what safety we have in an inherently hazardous world. Most such safety comes from intelligence and care on the part of human beings, both as audience members and business operators. (And a lot of it, frankly, comes from the fact that even "obviously hazardous" things like pyro in a small club, if done with care, rarely create fatal hazards in the first place.)
There are ways to be maximally safe and sensible. They would involve never being in a large crowd, never driving a car, and never leaving your house—while making sure to be very, very careful around slick, wet bathroom floors. The events in the Rhode Island and Chicago nightclubs this past week were horrible beyond words. In a world of 24-hour commentary (and I'm aware of the self-reflexive irony operating here), there's always a rush for a lesson to be learned or a solution to be offered. The real tragedy is that sometimes there aren't any overarching lessons or solutions that can definitively prevent such tragedies from recurring.