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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Fire Safety Through Legislation - "American Bloodlaw"

by Steven P. Velasquez
January 27, 2013

Below is a copy of a term paper I submitted while pursing a degree in Fire Science in 2003.  I'm attaching it here because this morning's news leads with the tragic loss of over 240 young lives in a night club in Brazil over night.  The fire allegedly broke out from a pyrotechnics display that communicated to the soundproof foam over head and the rest is the repetitive story of too many people, with a rapidly advancing, fuel fed fire and not enough avenues for egress.

I posted links to the tragedy on Facebook and one of the first replies I received was; "Where were the sprinklers?"  If you have a few minutes, read below and see how this tragic history continues to repeat itself both here and abroad.

Respectfully and with prayers for the deceased,








Fire Safety Through Legislation

U.S. v. Ignorance, Indifference, Apathy & Extravagance

“American Bloodlaw”


by Steven P. Velasquez


Fire Prevention & Inspection

Professor Ronald Kanterman

Fall 2003

November 30, 2003

When it comes to protection of American lives from the ravages of fire, the suggestions of the wise fall upon deaf ears until tragedy has struck, blood has been shed and lives have been lost.  Author Nicholas Faith refers to this as “tombstone technology” (Blaze p. 55).  Immediately following these losses are some predictable patterns of human behavior.  Advocacy groups are formed, public awareness is increased – if but for a moment; and the most dangerous place for one to be, is standing between a politician and news camera as he/she touts their new proposed legislation. 


In a strange and seemingly cathartic response to a tragedy, society tries to dowse the flames of anguish with a steady stream of legislation.  These laws are often too little too late, come with no teeth or no way to fund their enforcement.  Add political influences, special interest groups, unions and the like – you’ll likely be reaching for the Tylenol in very short order.  The legislative process is a long and arduous one.  Often, by the time a bill is signed into legislation, the emotion and the memories of the incident have subsided or even been replaced by the tragedy de jour.  In the book “Triangle The Fire That Changed America,” author David Drehle puts it succinctly:

“After the fire, many leaders from many walks of life promised that no important detail of the tragedy would ever be forgotten.  But much was forgotten, and soon.  The facts of the disaster blurred into legend” (226).

Today, the Asche building, where the Triangle Shirtwaist fire occurred is owned by NYU.  Two small plaques are placed on the A,D corner.  One mentioning that the building is a historical landmark and is maintained by the US Dept. of the Interior.  The second, a euphemism by all measures, mentions the 146 “brave martyrs” that sacrificed their lives – so that we can have the best labor laws in the world?  This author doubts that 146 people, age 13 to 20 went into that building that day, willing to burn behind illegally locked doors or by leaping to their assured deaths – for good labor laws?


There are two types of legislation regarding fire safety; laws that regulate and establish parameters for how we build, operate, secure and protect our buildings and cities; others that punish incompetence and negligence, especially those cases that lead to injury or loss of life.  Often, people seek legislation after the fact.  This serves a dual purpose of not damning someone else to live through a similar experience or to punish the incompetent and the negligent.   “It is only through court imposed financial penalties that changes in procedures or practices necessary to improve public safety are ultimately achieved” (Gabrielle).  So says Monica Gabrielle, a 9/11 widow that has chosen to sue vs. settle for the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund.  Her sentiment is not from a public service standpoint but from a layperson that has suffered a loss during the horrific fire and subsequent structural collapse of the World Trade Center.  Terrorism and tragedy aside, we intend to discuss the way events like this lead to lawsuits, legislation and eventually public safety improvements through the 20th and now 21st centuries.  This author agrees with Mrs. Gabrielle’s reasoning.  History however has taught us some other painful lessons about “bringing people to justice.”   In the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911, the owners were both “indicted on charges of first and second-degree manslaughter” (Triangle fire kills 146).  “A Grand jury exonerated the Triangle owners of manslaughter charges, claiming that the bolted door might have been locked by an employee” (Davis p. 201).  This despite admissions by the owners that they would do so to protect their business from theft.

A Perilous Quartet

American fire history is littered with failures of people, materials, structures, and existing legislation; ignorance, indifference, extravagance and apathy - the four major culprits cited for loss by fire.  This perilous quartet are today alive and well with no threat of going away.  They are wealthy, legally astute and have a wide-reaching support network.  Our history, past and present supports this claim irrefutably.   All of our laws and codes, regarding fire, can be directly traced to some horrific tragedy (mostly in the last century).  Some argue that “we’re on the right track” (Goldstein), citing drops in the fire death rate, the increase in use of sprinklers, smoke alarms and education campaigns; all true but more  work lies ahead.

Past Is Prologue

Is it not true that we are supposed to “learn” by the mistakes of the past?  Is it not reasonable to believe that yesterday’s failures should lead to tomorrow’s successes?  If so, then we should not be reading current news repeating yesteryears failures.  As I performed the research for this paper, I noticed that one could erase the date from the headlines, make a few grammatical changes to modernize the wording and voila!  History does, in fact, repeat itself. 

Whether you’re in a night club in Warwick R.I., in 2003, watching a rock band or rewind to 1903, in a Chicago Theater (The Iroquois) watching “a double octet of eight men and eight women singing a song titled ‘In the Pale Moonlight’” (Davis 186), a stage prop ignites a flammable decoration on a non-sprinklered stage.  The result is a stampede of people clawing and climbing over each other desperately trying to reach the exits. Many will not.  They will lie, entombed, charred and suffocated in a large pile of humanity.  Same reason, same lesson not learned – a century apart. 

To make matters worse, not a day of jail time would be served by anyone indicted in the Iroquois trial.  A grand jury would exonerate the mayor and several others.  Manslaughter & misfeasance charges would be upheld against others but would fail on technicalities.  Not a single relative would collect “on any of the hundreds of damage suits” (Davis 188).  The jury is still out on Warwick.  But if history plays a role here, the defendants have little to worry about.

Not enough risk

Whether it’s the dawn of the 20th or 21st Century, the perilous quartet have not changed their appearance or tactics.  One safety expert, at the Triangle Shirtwaist trial told the New York Times “One man whom I advised to install a fire drill replied to me: ‘Let’em burn.  They’re a lot of cattle, anyway’” (Davis 201).  When the Bergen Record Newspaper revealed that the Statue of Liberty, with its’ open chimney-like structure, was a fire hazard with a long list of failures, “the stewards of the Statue of Liberty National Monument [said] the risk isn’t serious enough to warrant closing such a popular attraction” (Kladko and Morley).

Members Only

 Michael Terpak is a 2nd Battalion Chief in the Jersey City Fire Department.  A frequent lecturer at the Fire Dept. Instructors Conference (FDIC), author of several fire service manuals and member of Fire Engineering Magazine’s editorial review board.  Chief Terpak was asked why does it appear that no public safety legislation can be passed without “a body count.”  Among many comments made “off the record,”  one reason he said was “the lack of information exchange.”  And that “the fire service needs to be involved in the decision making” process (Terpak).  When a building, a development, a town or city is being planned, some of the last people consulted, and then only perfunctorily, are representatives of the fire service.  

One difficulty the fire service suffers today is to raise public attention to an issue without appearing like a group of alarmists looking to pad their budgets, get new toys and hire more personnel using scare tactics.  Chief Terpak’s response reminded me of the closing dialogue in the 1974 smash hit “The Towering Inferno.”  As the fire dies down and the body count is tallied, the Chief (Paul Newman) says to the architect (Steve McQueen):

“One of these days they’re going to kill 10,000 in one of these fire traps.  And I’m going to keep eating smoke and bringing out bodies – until somebody asks us – how to build ‘em (The Towering Inferno).”

The accusations mentioned above  are how people with agendas spin and pervert the efforts of the one service that is directly involved with all the American tragedies.  These people are the defense council of the perilous quartet.   


Throughout the 20th Century, sprinkler systems have proven themselves flawlessly in all the places where they’ve been employed.  They have also been the mute witnesses in all the places where they haven’t.  In a classroom discussion, Chief Ron Kanterman of Merck & Co. Fire Dept., said “had The Station Night Club in Rhode Island had a sprinkler system, this would have been a non-incident.”  New York State law provides that any place of public assembly has sprinkler heads above their stages.  It took 591 souls in the 1903 Iroquois Theater and 295 souls in an 1876 fire at the Brooklyn Theater (Davis 196) for this to become a “good idea.”  Both theater fires began over the stages and claimed an enormous amount of life & limb loss. 

Not In This Building!


On December 7, 1946, “the worst hotel fire in U.S. history took place in the ‘fireproof’ Winecoff Hotel in Atlanta, Georgia” (Davis 180).  This incident injured 100 and killed 119.  The building had no fire escapes, sprinkler system or alarm system because it was deemed “fireproof.”  A smoldering mattress in an unattended hallway ignited the new paint on the walls.  The rest is history.  What do you think the outcome  would be if there were a sprinkler system in place that day?  Keeping with the legal nature of this writing, “the hotel’s lessees were indicted for involuntary manslaughter, but the charges were dropped six months later” (Davis p. 181).”

Again, referring to “The Towering Inferno,” there are several references made – “not in this building” – “you know I never thought this building could burn” - that punctuate the attitude of arrogance we have toward this  proven killer. 

The Winecoff Hotel was built of “entirely noncombustible materials.  The walls and floors were made of steel, reinforced concrete, face brick, marble and terra-cottta” (Davis p. 180).  No fire protection systems, alarm systems fire escapes were needed because it was deemed non-combustible.  The Asche Building where the Triangle Shirtwaist fire occurred was also deemed “fireproof” because of the non-combustible nature of the structural materials.  This building was equipped with only one fire escape too. (Triangle fire kills 146).  The tower in the movie, had many of the modern amenities and still illustrated the possibility of disaster.  The point being, no matter how much legislation we throw toward a fire, if our attitude doesn’t change toward it, the results will be the same.  President John F. Kennedy once said: “Laws alone do not make man right.”


On February 1, 2000 before a Committee Meeting of the New Jersey Assembly Housing Committee, Gerard Naylis of the NJ Division of Fire Safety and member of the Fire Safety Commission described this phenomena best.  In the wake of the tragedy at Seton Hall on Jan. 19, 2000, this group of legislators and industry professionals met to “find answers as to why this tragedy happened and what can be done to make sure that it doesn’t happen again” (Committee Meeting).  Mr. Naylis stated:

“First I have to say that our history is replete with examples of horrific fires that resulted in changes to our fire and building codes.  Some of these happened right here in our own state.  The unfortunate truth is that, for some reason, we must always make a prepayment in human life and sacrifice before society is willing to accept what fire protection professionals have been saying for years.  The fire at Seton Hall is further proof of this societal mind-set” (Committee Meeting).

Thus far, none but the perilous quartet have offered testimony that adequately answers this compelling question.  Mr. Naylis further testified “the lack of automatic sprinkler protection is, perhaps, the single, largest factor that allowed this fire to kill three people and injure another sixty-two” (Committee Meeting).  The pages and pages of testimony that followed battled to and fro questioning “how much” would the cost be – and how would we fund it.  The standard answer has been approximately the same as carpeting one’s home - about $4.00 per square foot.


One year later, in the 107th Congress S. 399 “The College Fire Prevention Act” was enacted to retrofit all colleges, dormitories, and adjacent structures including fraternity houses with the life-saving technology.  This legislation is probably some of the fastest to be passed after such an incident.  By comparison, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire gave birth to the first Uniform Fire Code in the U.S.  Devastating as that incident was, it took seven years to accomplish the task.  The speed in which “The College Fire Prevention Act” was enacted is evidence of steady progress.  It however and very unfortunately still requires “prepayment in blood.”




1.     “College Fire Prevention Act” S. 399. 107th Congress. 2001 <>
2.     Davis, Lee. Man Made Catastrophes From the Burning of Rome to the Lockerbie                                       Crash. New York: Facts On File Inc., 1993.
3.     Diamond, Randy. “Panel Wants Sprinklers Mandated In dormitories --- Calls for Action By N.J. Lawmakers.” The Bergen Record 26 Feb. 2000.
  1. Faith, Nicholas. Blaze The Forensics of Fire. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999
5.     Gabrielle, Monica. “Sue or settle on 9/11? Courts hold truth for families.” Daily News 2 Oct. 2003: Opinion
6.     Goldstein, Avram. “Fire Deaths Decline Dramatically As Safety Improves.”  The Bergen Record  7 Mar. 1999: News.
7.      “Investigate the issue of fire safety in State institutions and public and independent institutions of higher education.”  Committee Meeting of Assembly Housing Committee.2000 < > 1 Feb. 2000.
8.     Kladko, Brian and Hugh R. Morley, “Liberty’s Hidden Danger – Blaze Could Leave Visitors Trapped Inside.”  The Bergen Record 29 Oct. 2000: News
9.     Margasak, Larry, “Capitol, Lawmakers’ Offices Could Go Up In Flames---Study Shows Fire Protection Inadequate, Defective.”  The Bergen Record  26 Dec. 1998
10.   “Owners indicted for Triangle tragedy”: 20th Century Day by Day. Dorling Kindersley Limited, London p. 149 2000
11.  Terpak, Michael (2nd Battalion J.C.F.D.). Personal interview.  29 Nov. 2003.
12.  The Towering Inferno. DVD.  Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 1974, 165 min.
13.  “Triangle fire kills 146; most are girls”: 20th Century Day by Day. Dorling Kindersley Limited. London p. 148 2000.
14.  Von Drehle, David Triangle: The Fire That Changed America. New York:      Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003.




  1. Steve,

    Excellent paper, very well written and thought out. You dared to address the hard issues that we as a society will often jump on the bandwagon of (insert topic here) as a result of a tragedy but we fail to continue the fight to ensure that the situation gets mitigated. As professionals, we are constantly barraged with the effects of tragedy yet manage to maintain a clear head and sound decision making. The results of the investigation into the Brazil Nightclub fire will take some time, unfortunately the lessons learned will already be steeped in history and what many of us may consider "common sense". While not a nightclub, another tragedy that comes to mind was the Our Lady of Angels fire in 1958 ( The same lessons learned in the Iroquois Theater, notification, suppression, and egress played out in this renovated school, with the same fatal consequences. This history will continue to repeat itself until the society that we live in realizes that the professionals out there, the "crusaders for public safety" (note, this is not a paid vs volunteer argument as it does not apply) are professing their concerns for the greater good and not to further their own individual agendas. Thank you for addressing these concerns, 10 years later and we are still fighting the same issues, notification, suppression, and egress that have plagued us for years.

  2. Steve,

    I'm sitting here debating exactly how I feel on this topic. I'm writing this completely off the cuff, and mainly stream of thought, so if it lacks any cohesion whatsoever, well, you'll know why. The first few paragraphs immediately drew a parallel in my mind to the current "debate" concerning gun control. I'm not going to minimize events in modern American society. The American phenomenon of mass murder carried out by the "lone nut" is certainly an issue that needs to be examined, and addressed in some capacity. Herein lies the problem. The knee jerk reaction is GUN CONTROL!!! OH MY GOD THESE EVIL THINGS MUST GO!!! This is the cry of the lemmings. This is the simplistic cry of those who lack the ability or desire to think through various cause/effect scenarios. Knowing both you and Dave, I seriously doubt either of you will take issue with my characterization of those clamoring for strict governmental interference in the firearm realm as...mostly reactionary, simplistic and usually based in ignorant fearmongering. We all know that such mass murders, as well as the routine violence we as urban first responders see on a daily, constant basis have much deeper causalities, and simple "feel-good" legislation will do nothing to stem such a tide, if not worsen the violent cycle we currently face in our nation. So, as much as I hesitate to ask, is fire safety beyond the fundamental basics that we've been enforcing for I'd guesstimate at the past 20 years or so truly going to make a difference? I am not a researcher. I am certainly not a pontificator on fire safety. I'm simply a grunt with a leery eye towards government with a pessimistic view that, well, shit happens. People make mistakes. People, for lack of a better phrase, do dumb shit. They do dumb shit quite often. I'm rather confident in my belief that no amount of legislation, enforcement or governmental nanny-ism is going to change the fact that most people are downright goofy. Darwin had a theory about something like that....I'll see if I can find it somewhere.

    My pessimism is clearly showing. One only need look at the Deutsche Bank fire to realize that no matter the volumes of rules, legislation, etc one has on the books...and trust me, the City of New York has plenty (with the fines to boot! Thanks Mayor Bloomberg), without enforcement or a spirit of cooperation with those tasked with following them, they mean nothing. Having dealt with that nightmare of a situation, Call it indifference, call it apathy, call is systemic corruption, but until people recognize the SPIRIT of fire prevention...until people realize that they are responsible for more than their own selfish needs, no amount of legislation will mean a thing. As dumb as people may be, they're even MORE selfish. If it costs them money, if it costs them effort...they're not going to do it, compulsory or not. My pessimism shows again....(Had to write in 2 parts...part 2 to follow!)

  3. Now, my conflict. If we don't advocate for fire safety, nobody will. I'm not talking about sprinklers, or standpipe inspections, or banning live Christmas trees in retail stores. I'm talking about staffing. I'm talking about response times. I'm talking about equipment that works. It blows my mind when people say we in NYC are "spoiled" by our staffing. Spoiled? No. That's what it takes to do the job effectively. Having worked in a jurisdiction that had career personnel going out with 1-2 on an engine, at most 3...I know what it's like. Sprinklers are nice, but so are firefighters. Brothers complain about the lack of staffing, but not many actively advocate or seek more. People are dumb, remember? And we need someone to go collect the dumb ones when they burn their stuff. My head hurts. Interesting read, and all valid points. I just tend to reside in a more libertarian frame of mind, which tends to see any extra governmental interference never corrects the only make someone else richer. (I must also give credence to the very real truth hood that all rules we abide by on the fireground are written in blood...and that we'd be wise to read the words spelled out in the spilled crimson of those who went before us.

    OK, I'm done now!