Despite the deaths last February of 21 partygoers in Chicago, and 100 music fans in Rhode Island, many club owners and fire departments still may not be making safety a top priority, according to a Primetime investigation.
It's business as usual, said Gary Briese, head of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. "It hasn't improved at all. Nothing's changed."
Working with ABC affiliates around the nation, Primetime found that in many nightclubs, there remain key elements for another tragedy.
In Denver, in a space that's supposed to hold 76 people, patrons were packed in so tight they could barely move.
At the same club, a back exit was completely blocked. Nor did it lead outside — it led to another club. The street exit is actually reached through the kitchen.
After Primetime's visit, the club said it cleared the exit, and retrained its staff about crowd control.
At another club, Primetime found a deck packed with people — and some of the staff seem completely clueless about its capacity. One cop said the deck was packed every weekend, and estimated its capacity at 500 people. It was actually supposed to hold only 141 people.
At other places Primetime saw a fight break out in a stairwell, candles burning inches from people's clothes, and a fire alarm taped over and painted.
There were problems all over the country: exits blocked with trash and tubs of beer in St. Louis; an exit door locked shut at a hall filled with 300 people in San Diego; an exit doorway chained in Tampa; a crowd restless to get in blocking people from getting out in Wilmington, N.C.
Potential Harm in the Hurricane Hut?
Of all the communities visited by Primetime, the most troubling was a suburb of Houston — Harris County, Texas.
County Fire Marshal Mike Montgomery admitted his office doesn't inspect the area's 400 nightclubs nearly often enough. There is only one full-time inspector for the whole unincorporated county, he said.
In a club called the Hurricane Hut, that inspector found more than a dozen violations:
• An exit sign led to a fenced balcony — not the back door. • In a storage room, there were tanks filled with propane gas. • The club had no fire alarm. • Some walls were covered with a straw-like material, which was supposed to be specially treated — but when tested, burned right up.
Club manager Curtis McWilliams said he thought the wall covering wouldn't burn — and didn't know about the propane tanks. But he agreed to take care of any problems.
Six weeks later, when Primetime went back with hidden cameras though, the exit sign that led people to a balcony was still there and so was the straw covering — and tests showed that still burned like before.
Fire Marshal Montgomery said the club had been given deadlines to correct the problems. He said the most serious violations were already taken care of — such as the propane tanks, and bartenders doing tricks with flaming drinks.
But the night before meeting with him, Primetime saw a bartender still doing tricks with flaming drinks.
The Hurricane Hut's owners say they have since fired the offending bartenders and corrected all the problems. The fire marshal has also gotten funds for additional inspectors.
Fire experts are especially concerned about pyrotechnics. Scott McClusky, a guitarist in Kiss tribute band "Hotter than Hell" says he has set off pyrotechnics in 2,000 shows — even at the Station Club in Rhode Island.
That was the site of the deadly Feb. 20 fire that killed 100 people after the heavy metal band Great White set off pyrotechnics and the packing foam used to soundproof the walls caught fire.
After that incident, McClusky says he stopped using pyro. "It was just out of good taste. I mean, who wants to promote, you know, danger, after something like that happens?" he told Primetime.
McClusky might have given up pyro, but two months after the Rhode Island fire, Primetime shot a video of his band playing at a club in Nacogdoches, Texas — with McClusky setting off a flame effect powered by a propane gas tank, right on stage.
McClusky said he though the propane tanks were safe. "I walked out, everybody walked out," he said.
The club owner said he had extra fire extinguishers and assumed the band had a license.
McClusky says he believed propane would be safe after making sure the club had sprinklers.
But the club doesn't have sprinklers. And the city fire marshal said he would never approve using propane indoors.
'You Could Feel Yourself Dying'
To find out how pyrotechnics can start a fire under certain conditions, Fred Mowrer, professor of fire protection engineering at the University of Maryland, set up a demonstration.
In a room lined with foam — similar to what covered the walls at the Station Club — the pyro set off a dense cloud of smoke within seconds.
The conditions were similar to what the people at the club described. "You could actually feel yourself dying. You could feel yourself suffocating," Donna Reis said.
Reis remembers her fiancé Carl pulling her from a pile of bodies. She got out, but he didn't.
Linda Fisher was burned badly in the Rhode Island fire. "I said to God, 'Can you let my husband and daughter know they're the last things I thought of and please God just take care of them,'" she said.
Someone dragged Fisher to safety. Since then, she's had five surgeries. "I really would like to have my face back the way it used to be, but on the other hand, I'm also glad that I still have a face," she said.