by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
There are two things that you don't want anywhere near a nightclub. Fire and fuel. They equal death. We've all read the headlines or watched the video footage of charred bodies coming out of a smoldering club somewhere around the world.
In January of last year, a blaze raced through a crowded nightclub in southern Brazil, killing more than 230 people as the air filled with deadly smoke and panicked party-goers stampeded toward the exits. It was the world's deadliest nightclub fire in more than a decade. Nearly half of the 500 patrons that were inside perished in the fire that was started accidentally when a member of the band that was performing, lit a firework onstage and caught the place on fire - which injured another 117 people.
In December 2004, the world recoiled in horror as reports of a deadly nightclub fire in Argentina emerged. In one of Argentina's worst disasters, a flare ignited the foam ceiling at a nightclub packed with teenagers, sparking a blaze that killed 175 people and injured more than 700. Some 4,000 fans at the concert by the band Los Callejeros fought to reach the exits as burning debris fell on them. But they found at least four escape routes padlocked or wired shut in an apparent effort to prevent people from entering the club without paying.
And then there was the 2003 Rhode Island nightclub fire that killed over 100 people, injured 187 more, and shined a spotlight onto just how reckless some nightclub acts can be, as news reports claimed that the fire had been started when heavy metal band, Great White's pyrotechnics exploded during the performance. Because some bodies were badly burned, family members had to wait for DNA testing to learn their loved ones' fate.
Seattle is not in Brazil, Argentina or Rhode Island. But we could've made headlines for the exact same reasons - only instead of locked doors, charred bodies, and a death count of over 100 people, Neighbours Seattle, home to the city's LGBTQ community for 30 years, I am happy to report, that despite someone's attempt to trap and burn New Year's Eve revelers alive, nobody was hurt at all. And that is due to the quick actions taken by the staff and customers alike, at the legendary dance club.
I was there. I filmed the whole thing, led people out of the building and ran back in to see if anyone needed help. That's when a security guard, bartender and I found the unburned plastic red gasoline container - full of gas at the top of the stairs where the fire had begun minutes earlier.
The can did not catch fire because, moments before, two off-duty service members, Christopher Bostick and Mike Casey, along with Neighbours bartender Lucas Shipley located and grabbed a fire extinguisher and put the fire out in under 30 seconds. The bar staff pulled the fire alarm immediately after they saw smoke, ensured the sprinkler system was activated, and led everyone to vacate the premises.
The whole thing was over within two to three minutes; everyone had exited the building and nobody was hurt.
It's almost unheard of.
Here is why it worked:
Steve Tracey, General Manager, is damn good at what he does. The staff reacted to everything he said, immediately, and in some cases, before he said anything at all, because they are properly trained. They knew what to do, when to do it, and performed their duties in a professional manner. Imagine if they had panicked and yelled out, 'Fire!' to the over 700 people in the building? That would've been disastrous. Instead, they began to lead people to the many exits that Neighbours has clearly marked for patrons to see. The fact is, even during an emergency, customers did not panic, because the exits were visible to them and they could all see that they were walking towards them - not running, searching for anywhere, somewhere to get out. Fire extinguishers were also visible. That's why two customers were able to quickly locate one and extinguish the fire, alongside a Neighbours bartender, who had also located and armed himself to battle the fire - which crept up the stairway nearest the Neighbours Broadway doors, attached to Therapy bar/lounge at the front of the building.
I spoke with the two heroes (let's face it, they saved over 700 people from a burning inferno, they are heroes) Wednesday morning, just minutes after they had put out the blaze.
'We thought at first it was smoke from the smoke machine,' said Christopher Bostick. 'But then we could feel the heat and turned around and saw the flames coming up the stairs.'
According to Bostick and his friend Mike Casey, Neighbours bartender Lucas Shipley ran to grab a fire extinguisher and that is when they did the same.
'I couldn't believe how fast the fire was starting to spread,' said Casey. 'Your mind is racing at that point. We were going to do anything we could to make sure that fire did not spread. I even thought about filling up cups of water from the bar.'
Luckily, extreme measures weren't needed and the fire was extinguished.
In the alley, the staff now had the difficult job of letting everyone know that they would not be allowed back into the club because it was an active crime scene, due to arson. People were undoubtedly worried about their credit cards, jackets, etc. The staff kept people calm and returned as much of the items as they could to people before they, too, had to leave.
I felt sick to my stomach when I looked out at these people in the alley; minutes before we had all been partying together and celebrating the countdown - which is when I believe the person who did this snuck in the gas container - and that we could all be injured or dead from a stampede or smoke inhalation or fire.
My husband, Yee-Shin Huang, and I were just a few feet away from the bottom of the staircase the fire was ignited in. I thought about all those people who say 'Get out! I'm right behind you' and never see their loved one alive again, because, when the fire started, I grabbed him and said, 'Yee-Shin, there's a fire, get out now!' I am so proud to be married to this man. What I saw him do was beautiful. He immediately started getting people out of the building with him. It was an amazing thing to see. Unlike some people who have lost their loved ones to tragedy, Yee-Shin and I were reunited minutes later.
For five years I've worked alongside Aleksa Manila in this community. We've done some solid work together. Aleksa was being her fabulous self, leading the other entertainers onstage, Cesar Hart, Atasha Manila, and La Saveona Hunt during the countdown at midnight fifteen minutes before the fire started.
She updated her Instagram with a photo of the four entertainers and said, 'Nothing's gonna stop us from celebrating diversity & providing a safe space for everyone.'
Everyone can agree that this could have been a horrible situation. I'm thankful that it was not. I am thankful that everyone did what they were supposed to, when they were supposed to, and without trepidation.
'This could potentially have been much worse,' Seattle Fire Department spokesman Kyle Moore told the Seattle Times. 'You have an establishment full of patrons and an intentionally set fire. That's a very dangerous situation.'
Anyone who knows me could tell you I know LGBTQ history. I'm someone who believes that history is important for many reasons, but I'm also genuinely interested in it. The arson incident at Neighbours is reminiscent of the worst attack on Gays in our nation's history - some 40 years ago.
On June 24, 1973 the New Orleans' Gay community was celebrating Pride Weekend, as well as the fourth anniversary of 1969's Stonewall Uprising. You couldn't really have an open celebration of those events - in '73, anti-Gay slurs, discrimination, and even violence were still common - but the revelers had their own gathering spots in the city, places where people tended to leave them be, including a second-floor bar on the corner of Iberville and Chartres Street called the UpStairs Lounge.
That Sunday, dozens of members of the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), the nation's first Gay church, founded in Los Angeles in 1969, got together there for drinks and conversation. Just before 8 p.m., the doorbell rang insistently. To answer it, you had to unlock a steel door that opened onto a flight of stairs leading down to the ground floor. Bartender Buddy Rasmussen, expecting a taxi driver, asked his friend Luther Boggs to let the man in. What Boggs didn't know was that someone had doused the stairs in Ronsonol lighter fluid. When he opened the door, in the next instant, a fireball exploded, pushing upward and into the bar.
The ensuing 15 minutes were the most horrific that any of the 65 or so customers had ever endured - full of flames, smoke, panic, breaking glass, and screams.
MCC assistant pastor George 'Mitch' Mitchell escaped, but soon returned to try to rescue his boyfriend, Louis Broussard. Both died in the fire, their bodies clinging together in death.
Metal bars on the UpStairs Lounge windows, meant to keep people from falling out, were just 14 inches apart; while some managed to squeeze through and jump, others got stuck. That's how the MCC's pastor, Rev. Bill Larson, died. Horrifically screaming, 'Oh, God, no!' as the flames charred his flesh. When police and firefighters surveyed and began clearing the scene, they left Larson fused to the window frame until the next morning.
The UpStairs Lounge arson was the deadliest fire in New Orleans history and the largest massacre of Gay people ever in the U.S
Wednesday morning could have made similar headlines. But it didn't. Neighbours Seattle is still standing, its customers unscathed, and the staff as resilient as ever. Neighbours is more than just a bar or a nightclub. It is home to so many in our community - and has been for three decades. We don't turn our backs on that kind of support. And we certainly don't abide an attack on our community like this.
Arson Bomb Squad detectives:
As of early Wednesday morning, the police did not have a suspect.
Seattle Fire puts the damage estimate at $6,000.
The Seattle Police Department released the following statement written by Detective Renee Witt on January 1, 2014:
Suspect being sought in arson bar fire. On 1/1/2014, just shortly after midnight, an unknown suspect poured gasoline on a carpeted stairway leading to the second level of a bar and ignited it.
The bar in the 1500 block of Broadway was occupied by over 750 patrons celebrating New Year's Eve at the time. The fire was quickly discovered before it could spread beyond the stairway and was extinguished with a fire extinguisher.
Someone pulled the fire alarm and caused the fire sprinkler system to activate. An orderly evacuation was accomplished and no one was injured.
Arson Bomb Detectives (ABS) responded after being notified by SFD Fire Investigators.
No suspect information available. The investigation continues.
Neighbours Seattle released the following statement:
Last night, at approximately fifteen minutes after ringing in the New Year, someone or a group of people committed arson by dousing the steps nearest the Broadway Street entrance of Neighbours with gasoline and setting them on fire. The assailant(s) left behind a plastic 1 liter gas container at the top of the stairs. What could have been a catastrophic loss of property and lives was diverted by the quick thinking and professional actions of the Neighbours staff. We are happy to report that the fire did not harm, or even injure anyone, because friends and U.S. service members Christopher Bostick and Mike Casey and Neighbours Seattle bartender Lucas Shipley located and grabbed a fire extinguisher and put the fire out in under 30 seconds. The bar staff pulled the fire alarm immediately after they saw smoke, ensuring the sprinkler system was activated and letting everyone know that they had to vacate the premises. Within two minutes, everyone had exited the building and nobody was hurt. Fire rescue and SPD officials arrived on scene and due to an ongoing investigation into what happened, we cannot, at this time, offer any further comment on the matter except that we are thankful for the fact that no one was hurt, honored that so many of you have reached out with words of support since the incident, and happy for your continued patronage. More information will be made available when we are able to put out the information without the possibility of jeopardizing the investigation.
Neighbours Seattle, the ever-resilient, opened their doors for business less than 48 hours after the incident. Good for them. Good for us.
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