Death certificates issued for some of the victims of the GREAT WHITE concert fire are leading lawyers to focus on whether the toxic fumes rendered the nightclub's patrons incapable of escaping the fast-moving blaze, according to The Providence Journal.
The death certificates show that some of the victims died from inhaling "products of combustion" and that their lungs were restricted by compression, leaving them unable to breathe.
This conclusion by the state's medical examiner, Elizabeth Laposata, has led civil lawyers representing the fire victims and their families to look not just at flammability of materials in The Station but also at the toxicity of the materials there.
Death certificates viewed by The Providence Journal yesterday — one for a woman in her 30s who died in the West Warwick nightclub, the other for a man in his late 20s who also died there — say the immediate cause of death for both was: "inhalation of products of combustion and restriction of respiration by compression."
The woman's death certificate says that "thermal burns of the body surfaces" was another significant condition contributing to death "but not resulting in the underlying cause [of death.]"
The death certificates were issued about three weeks ago but are off-limits to public inspection. The Journal was able to view the death certificates without the help of state or local agencies.
Attempts over the last several weeks to learn the cause of death for the 99 fire victims were unsuccessful.
Helen Drew, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health, said yesterday that the medical examiner's office usually releases the cause of death of a person if a member of the public calls with a name of a person and the date of death. But "we're not releasing the cause of death for the victims of The Station fire per Dr. Laposata's direction," Drew said.
Deputy Atty. Gen. Gerald J. Coyne said his office had directed Laposata to withhold the cause of death for The Station fire victims because of the criminal investigation now under way.
Those who escaped the fire — which has claimed 99 lives — and firefighters who converged on the scene late on the night of Feb. 20 say they found bodies stacked one on top of another near the exits. There has been much speculation that many people died because of suffocation.
But lawyers representing several of the fire victims said yesterday that one of the main focuses of their inquiry is the role toxicity played in the deaths.
"There's a chance that a lot of people were rendered incapacitated by the fumes and that's why they couldn't get out," Providence lawyer Mark Decof said after a court hearing on the civil litigation inside the Licht Judicial Complex.
"My clients' death certificates say the cause of death was the inhalation of toxic fumes," said lawyer Mark Mandell.
Lawyer Max Wistow says a videotape shot at The Station by Channel 12 "shows an incredible amount of black smoke at the beginning of the fire."
Decof, Mandell and Wistow — who, in an unprecedented move in Rhode Island, have decided to pool their resources on behalf of about 30 clients represented by their three firms — said their experts are looking beyond the issues of flammability of items such as the foam that covered the nightclub's walls, focusing also on "the toxicity of materials" that were present.
On Wednesday, lawyers and investigators combed through the ruins of The Station nightclub for evidence to be used in civil lawsuits by victims and their families. From what experts found, said Wistow, "We have preliminary indications . . . that there were federal regulatory requirements that may have been violated."
"In a fire that moves very quickly, every effect is important," said Dr. John Hall, of the National Fire Protection Association, which investigates fires and writes national fire and safety codes. "All the toxic gases, the deprivation of oxygen. In a fast moving fire, it becomes almost academic to ask which killed you first, or most. Everything is involved. That's why the most important issue in fire hazard is how much is burning and how fast."