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Emergency tapes from nightclub fire released

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Emergency tapes from nightclub fire released

  • A Rhode Island trial judge ordered 3-1/2 hours of recordings of emergency workers’ communications during a deadly fire released under the state Access to Public Records Act.

Nov. 21, 2003 — A Rhode Island trial judge earlier this month ordered the release of 277 telephone calls and radio communications among emergency responders and dispatchers made during a deadly fire at The Station nightclub in West Warwick Feb. 20. The length of the recordings totalled 3-1/2 hours.

The fire occurred during a concert by the band Great White. Pyrotechnics used during the show ignited flammable soundproofing foam, trapping those in attendance inside the burning club. One hundred people were killed, and approximately 200 were injured.

The Providence Journal requested from the city, under the Public Records Act, numerous documents relating to the fire, including communications between emergency workers.

Journal attorney Joseph V. Cavanagh said state Attorney General Patrick Lynch objected to the release of the communications because of an ongoing investigation into who was responsible for the fire, and to protect the privacy of the victims. However, the attorney general changed his mind after the Journal sued, and took no position as to whether releasing the documents would interfere with the investigation or invade victims’ privacy.

Judge Mark Pfeiffer, of the Superior Court in Warwick, ruled Nov. 5 that the communications must be released to the public. Although they have since been released, and excerpts published by the Journal, the judge’s order has not yet been published due to disputes between the newspaper and the attorney general over the wording.

Cavanagh says Pfeiffer ordered the communications released because the attorney general, by taking no position, had not met the state’s burden under the Public Records Act of proving that the documents should be withheld.

Of the 277 recordings, eight were edited to remove information that identified victims. Ninty-one police communications continue to be withheld. Communications between victims and emergency workers, such as 911 calls, were not released because they are confidential under Rhode Island law.

The Journal continues to litigate for other documents relating to the fire, including fire and police department incident reports, dispatch reports, records of where bodies were recovered, a list of survivors and the 91 withheld police communications.

(Providence Journal Co. v. Town of West Warwick, Media Counsel: Joseph V. Cavanagh, Jr., Blish & Cavanagh, LLP, Providence) GP

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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