Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Children of Our Bravest: Some Thoughts on Nightclub Fires

A fire broke out at a crowded nightclub in Russia on Friday night, killing 112 people.  Faulty fireworks are being blamed, and a number of people are under arrest.  Most of the dead breathed toxic fumes from the fire.  Reports from those who were inside indicate there was a stampede which wound up blocking everyone's way out.

This may sound familiar to Americans, who remember the fire at the Station Nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island in 2003.  In that fire, pyrotechnics ignited foam installed around the stage, causing a fast moving fire.  A stampede ensued, completely blocking the main entrance where most of the patrons headed even though there were four exits.  100 people died.

I had the privilege of taking a class with Dr. Anne Balboni, one of the CISM responders to that awful event.  She described in gruesome detail the piles of bodies that firefighters had to remove, one corpse at a time.  She also described their surprise after removing the bulk of one pile at finding a man who was alive and uninjured on the bottom.  He had rolled on his side as he fell, protecting himself from being crushed, and the bodies above and beside him had protected him from the fire and smoke.

Perhaps the most riveting story, though, came when she talked about working with the children of the firefighters after the Station Nightclub tragedy.  She invited all of them to draw a picture of their firefighter parent in whatever clothes they liked -- dress uniform, gear or whatever.  One child drew a picture of his father and said, "He's in regular clothes.  I'm going to be a firefighter so he doesn't have to anymore."

When something awful happens, we focus on those who died, those who were hurt, those who survived and all of their families.  If we're astute, we remember to focus on the first responders, too.  This story, however, illustrates vividly an important aspect of any event.  Everyone affected brings their stress and associated symptoms home with them.  That in turn impacts their families, leading at best to strain, and at worst to the breakup of families.  I imagine somewhere in Russia there's a small child saying he wants to be a firefighter so his dad doesn't have to.  I hope both of them get some support.

Notes:  The fact that everyone headed for the main entrance at the Station Nightclub is a lesson for all of us.  No matter where you are, always look around and figure out where the nearest exit is.  If we all did that, fewer people would die in incidents such as this.

Also, I'd like to apologize to Anne Balboni if any of the details of this story are incorrect.  The thrust of it is basically right, but I can't say with certainty that the particulars are 100% correct.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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