Lessons from a Tragedy

by George Petersen
in Editor's Note
George Petersen, Editor of FOH Magazine
George Petersen, Editor of FOH Magazine

Just a year after the Bataclan Theater attacks, the venue reopened with Sting performing a benefit show for the sold-out crowd. It’s definitely a good sign, in that the free world refuses to cower to (the thankfully rare) acts of terrorism, whether abroad or on our own shores, such as June 12, 2016, where 49 people perished at the hands of a lone gunman at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub. People will not — and should not — be afraid to go out to attend a sporting event or an evening’s entertainment at a theater, club or concert; in fact it’s an activity that people enjoy and can lift the spirits of anyone attending such activities and being part of a larger group.

 The Dangers We Face

The reality is injuries or deaths of ANY kind at an entertainment venue are unacceptable. Patrons attend these functions to have a good time and escape from the world for a few hours, and the last thing they want to think about is the safety of themselves, and their family, friends and loved ones. In fact, the Event Safety Alliance (eventsafetyalliance.org) has issued protocols for facility dangers, ranging from worker protection practices to dealing with situations such as extreme weather conditions and active shooter situations in public venues.

Patrons attending an event have a right to being in a safe location. While dangers such as tornados, a sudden windstorm or even active shooters may be avoidable — yet not 100 percent preventable, the tragedy is much worse when conditions at the venue itself contribute to the calamity. One well-known example is the Station Nightclub fire of February 20, 2003, where pyrotechnics set off by headliner Great White’s tour manager caused a sudden inferno. That alone is inexcusable, but the effect of that was considerably worsened when patrons were trapped in the club due to blocked exits, leading to 100 deaths and 230 injuries.

So now, some 13 years later, hearing about the aftermath of the “Ghost Ship” warehouse EDM rave fire in Oakland, CA on Dec. 2, 2016 — which took the lives of 36 people — is even sadder. Particularly poignant were reports of attendees inside the building, trapped by the flames, who sent farewell texts to friends and family, knowing that they would not escape.

Controlling the Risks

While the preliminary cause of this fire seems to be electrical in nature, possibly ignited by a malfunctioning refrigerator, there are way too many other contributing factors at work here. These range from locked and inadequate exits, lack of a sprinkler system, no emergency lighting, flammable debris and art throughout the maze-like interior and unstable makeshift stairs to the upper story that were said to be constructed from scrap wood and shipping pallets. Making things worse, all power for the building went out immediately after the fire began. Of course, there were no permits either to hold public gatherings/performances at the building or for the event itself.

For myself, this most recent event hits close to home — literally, as the site is about two miles from my house. I am very familiar with that area and have dozens of friends and acquaintances who live, work, rehearse and live/work in similar structures, either as visual artists, musicians and producers. Having visited (and occasionally worked in) many of these warehouse/buildings, I can only imagine the horror of trying to escape from these often maze-like structures in an emergency.

As sound providers, we occasionally (or frequently) work in limited egress spaces — and they aren’t necessarily all gigs doing all night raves in funky dilapidated warehouse conversions. Even someplace seemingly as benign as an upstairs sound “booth” or loft could present a serious problem if the single entrance/exit stairs were blocked where there are no other exits. I spent years working in cramped theater booths where the only access was either a ladder or a dark narrow staircase, where it was “been there, know that.”

In any situation, it’s all too easy to become complacent — “Like, what could possibly happen here?” And many scenarios may seem safe, especially where there are no amateur pyrotechnics or pulsating EDM sound/light shows within miles. However, all it takes is a something as simple as a holiday candle combined with a gas leak in a downstairs church kitchen or concession booth and what earlier seemed secure can instantly become a life-threatening disaster. In a case like that, a $1 garage sale hammer and a 2x4 lashed to 20 feet of rope could make a difference when trapped in an enclosed space.

We may not have control over all the variables in our lives, but awareness of our surroundings may someday be a key to your very survival. It doesn’t have to be overly complicated, but wherever you are working, make sure that you and your crew have exits that are accessible, are available, and formulate an exit plan for every gig you do.

Have a safe holiday season (and beyond). Perhaps we can all learn a little bit from these tragedies and hopefully avoid such disasters in the future.