Local concert-goers undeterred by recent nightclub disasters


John Ellis could hardly wait to throw himself into the thickening swarm of concert-goers Friday night at Towson's Recher Theatre.

"The more crowded it is, the more exciting it is," said Ellis, 19, who had driven from York, Pa., to see funk-metal band Jimmie's Chicken Shack. And even though not a full day had passed since the second nightclub disaster in a week, Ellis admitted he had no idea where to find the emergency exits.

"Honestly," he said, turning his body toward the entrance, "I'd like to say I'd look around for them, but I'd probably make a beeline for the front doors."

After a fire that killed at least 96 people at a Rhode Island concert venue, some in the industry debated whether safety measures are adequate, and more people than usual glanced up at exit signs and fretted about narrow stairways. But for the most part, Baltimore nightlife buzzed along Friday like any other weekend night.

Like most young people out this weekend, Amanda Shoff and Mike Andrews, both 21 and Charles Village residents, didn't think twice about cramming into their favorite local joint. The pair lingered at the rear of a packed second floor at Fletcher's bar in Fells Point during a performance by alternative rock band Nada Surf.

"At our age, we feel like we're immortal," Shoff said, punctuating her words by gesturing with a bottle of Miller Lite. "I just don't get scared. Maybe I don't have enough life experience."

Others, generally those beyond their 21st birthday, said the incident Thursday night in West Warwick, R.I., and a stampede that killed 21 Monday in a crowded Chicago club gave them pause.

"This was definitely a wake-up call," said Sue Neil, a vendor selling $10 concert T-shirts at Recher. "I could see it happening anywhere."

Neil, 36, of Stevensville said club managers should make a safety announcement before the start of a concert. "What harm could it do to say, 'The fire exits are here and there,' and point toward them, like a stewardess would?" she said.

The converted movie theater has three clear emergency exits in addition to the front entrance, and a full sprinkler system and fire alarms that are wired to the Baltimore County Fire Department.

"We don't play games," said Brian Recher, who owns the establishment with his brother.

Club operators and industry experts said last week's deadly events were anomalies. But Robert Plotkin, president of the National Nightclub and Bar Association, acknowledged that some operators might not follow the letter of the law.

"I think that it's possible some operators, in an effort to generate more revenue or more excitement ... do some things that are not very wise from a security standpoint," he said.

Paul Wertheimer, a Chicago-based crowd management consultant, said he has seen a lax attitude among many club managers. More and more of them put away tables and chairs in favor of standing-room-only spaces, and some don't employ enough security personnel, he said.

"I've noticed it getting sloppier over the years," Wertheimer said.

Local club managers insist they follow the rules. Fire officials in Maryland say there were no accidents in the about 500 indoor fireworks shows put on in the past two years.

Most operators avoid pyrotechnics altogether. Craig Boarman, co-owner of the Ottobar, near the Johns Hopkins University, said his club has refused performers who tend to draw unruly crowds or employ gimmicks like fire-breathing.

Maryland's deadliest fire involving a gathering of people killed 11 during a 1956 church oyster roast in Brooklyn Park. It sparked the nation's first study of panic reaction during a blaze, said Deputy State Fire Marshal W. Faron Taylor.

Taylor said he is "reasonably confident" that Maryland's fire code, if followed, would prevent a tragedy similar to that during the Great White concert in the Rhode Island club. For fire displays, both the pyrotechnician and the venue must be licensed by the fire marshal.

Owners of the Rhode Island club have said the hard-rock band did not ask permission to set off fireworks during its stage show.

Buddy Hilseberg, theater manager at Recher, said managers must take responsibility for what goes on in their clubs.

"Our technicians here own that stage," Hilseberg said. "Anything that a band sets up there - especially something that isn't supposed to be - they're going to know about it."

Neither Recher nor Fletcher's allows pyrotechnic displays.

Some club-goers say they know the risks of being in places with large numbers of people, some of them intoxicated and rowdy. They take it upon themselves to stay safe.

Gail Harris, 27, of Northeast Baltimore, said she avoids small, crowded nightclubs. "The bigger the club, the more exits there are," she said, as she took a break from dancing to the pulsating house music blaring at Hammerjacks in downtown Baltimore.

Although several hundred bumping and grinding bodies packed the twin dance floors in the large, two-story brick structure, many people said they didn't feel overwhelmed because bouncers were present and the crowd was friendly.

"I'm never afraid here like I am in some of the smaller D.C. clubs," said Simone Shaw, 21, of Baltimore, after squeezing her way past the crowd to reach the bathroom early yesterday morning.

Even 160 people - the upstairs capacity at Fletcher's - can seem like a mob when packed tightly around a stage.

Fletcher's owner Bryan Burkert said his staff turns closing time into a sort of fire drill by shepherding concert-goers out through emergency doors as well as down the narrow staircase to the main exit.

For some who ventured out this weekend, however, the deadly events in Chicago and Rhode Island were a sobering reminder of what could go wrong.

"There's no way to get out fast if something were to happen," said Roar Lien, a 27-year-old Norwegian studying at George Mason University, sitting with his companion at Fletcher's. "If something breaks out, you have no chance. That's the same thing in every nightclub."

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