Wednesday, 4 November 2015

The man who knows talks about fire hazards in Bucharest

Thousands of people rally demanding government resignations as the death toll from a night club fire at the weekend reached 32, with dozens more in the hospital in critical conditions, in Bucharest, Romania November 3, 2015.  REUTERS/Inquam Photos/Octav Ganea

Bucharest is very deeply moved indeed by the deaths in the Colectiv nightclub. Tonight large well-behaved crowds line Bulevard Unirii and fill Piata Universitatii and Piata Victoriei. People are very angry and determined.

I tried to give blood today but the queue was too long and they said they didn't want any more people. A friend of a friend came to the office collecting money for things patients need, like nappies, that hospitals don't have.Tonight I hear occasionally a roar from the crowd a quarter of a mile away in University Square. There it is again now. It is 12.51 a.m. in the early hours of Wednesday morning.

I received this mail as a comment on my recent blog-post on the fire at the Collectiv club, which has killed, so far, thirty mostly young people. I think everyone should read it and I publish it with the author's permission. It's from one of the wisest and most experienced foreigners living in Bucharest.

Having been a visitor to young kids in a burns hospital when I was a teenager, I know the terrible havoc that fires wreak, and the suffering that the survivors then go through for the rest of their lives. 

Twenty years ago I gave up accounting to work as consultant for the BPB group and set up Rigips Romania for them. BPB was then the biggest manufacturer of plasterboard/plasters in the world and an early lesson that I learned with them was that 'a good fire' was the best seller of fire-resistant plasterboard. I learned how to build firewalls that hold back fire for 3-4 hours, but also learned that the wall is useless if the roof or the other walls allow the fire to 'go around'  Firewalls stop flame but don't hold back smoke and it is nearly always the smoke and not the flame that kills. 

I watched videos of building fires to get an idea how they start and how unbelievingly quickly they travel, but I also know that in the split second that you open a 'life-saving' fire escape you also feed the fire. Added to all that, people don't act normally in a fire. On Saturday I heard an interview with the guy who did recent building work in the club. He mentioned that the owner didn't want to pay the extra for fireproof painting, but he himself fitted the wooden slats that hung under a "polystyrene ceiling that had believed to have been recently cleaned and probably with a solvent" !! He was contributing to the classic death trap. Me...? I would have walked off the job.... but I would also have passed on a warning.  

I can see the fire in my mind's eye.... firework sparks ignite the polystyrene on the column and flame rushes to the ceiling. Even without the impregnated solvent the flame travels laterally faster than you and I can walk, the smoke is acrid and poisonous but globs of fiery molten polystyrene fall on everyone so driving the panic. At that point a hundred extinguishers held by a hundred fire-protected men couldn't put out a fire now burning at 800C.  but now the second door to the outside is opened..... and there is a loud and terrifying WHOOSH... 

You mention inspectors and fudged inspections but the problem is much wider than that. 
Fire engulfed a wooden stand at Bradford Football ground in 1985 and some folk in the stand remained seated, paralysed with fear. Back in 1973 a fire in Summerland, a brand new shopping/sports complex on the Isle of Man killed 50 and injured 80. In 1987 a terrible fire in the Underground station at King's Cross killed 27 and injured scores more. All of these places had been recently "inspected"...... but if the inspector is a functionary with a tick list..... he is missing the plot. Fire extinguishers are useless

Your assumption about a lack of fire escapes in many clubs and restaurants is very close to the mark but the paramount exercise is NOT HAVING TO USE THEM, ie. preventing a fire from happening or spreading is what it is all about. There ARE fire regulations in place here and there ARE norms regarding building materials. They might be old, but if they had been in application, I am sure that the fire on Friday would not have started. In Romania too,  "ignorance of the law excuses no man"... so the primary responsibility lies with the owner/operator to know the law or to b advised by someone who does.

Six or seven years ago someone that you and I both know took on a pub in Bucharest and asked me to do some building work on the kitchen, When I went to the pub the first thing I noticed was the ceiling made from wooden strips and very dry sacking hanging down from it. A cigarette in a raised hand would be enough to start a fire and make the place an inferno in seconds. I made my point and was largely ignored, but he has since moved to another pub.....which has just one way in and one way out !!     I for one won't go in there..

Four years ago I worked on another pub, with an Irish owner and and Irish building supervisor. Here there was a fire exit at the back, but it led into a yard that had steel gates to the street that were chained on the OUTSIDE by a company that ran a security business. I put the case that even if people escaped into the yard they wouldn't be able to get away from the smoke and the crush, and emergency services would be delayed in getting to them. I was politely asked to get on with my building works..!!

WE ALL KNOW that there is insufficient water pressure in the Historic Centre  to supply the Fire Service in the case of a major fire, and WE ALSO KNOW that people-packed streets slow down the firemen even getting to a fire. A big fire on Gabroveni two years ago was 'proof of that pudding' but left the firemen arguing with the Man from Apanova.
Official enquiry...? Anything done..?

It isn't just a case of bent inspectors and spagi. It is far wider than that. It is the application of old unrealistic or unworkable safety norms, it is using simple tick lists for inspections, it is not 'nailing' slack or bent inspections, but above and beyond all, UNTIL NOW it has been allowing the owner/operator the latitude to be ignorant and to get away with it ...!!!  But now, all of a sudden and a bit too late we are going for Omor Calificat ......... Murder..... and life sentences.  

I won't sit inside a place that has a single entrance and exit because I know the risks. By the same token, we have to make people generally more aware of the risks they are taking..... and I would be all for your mate setting up some form of green and red codes in his guide............. even if setting it up would cost the 'inspectors' a black eye here and there.


  1. Romanians like to tempt fate in numerous ways. Be it driving like maniacs, smoking profusely, parking their 100,000 euro cars in the middle of the street and hoping no one hits them or fines them. . .

  2. Romanians are not safety conscious. The first thing I noticed when I came here from the USA is how sketchy the emergency response situation was. The fire trucks moved so slowly on the way to a fire. .

  3. A very valid comment, those of us who live in what we think is an over regulated Western Europe should take note. Fire Kills and preventing a fire is much easier than extinguishing one. We should all consider the risk when entering buildings in countries with less stringent fire regulations than our own.
    Andy P

  4. Food for thought. "What we think of as the over-regulated West," not to call the commenter out-- but it's fine to passionately call for regulation this and that now, but the impulse to that applied everywhere fifty years down the line does result in a highly regulated society. Maybe there are other ways--like the same commenter says, for individuals to consider the risk-- self-regulation, personal judgment, personal responsibility. That way society stays free, but the people have to earn it themselves is the "catch."

    A whole bunch of building and fire codes I am guessing will *not* make society happier in the long run. That kind of thing will save some lives now, vitiate society in the long run. Or so I imagine. At least, I fear. Those safety rules are so seductive--but something gets lost, little by little. I don't know the right balance and answer.

  5. Paul, I believe that our mutual friend hit most, if not all, the right buttons in his commentary. In the end, though, nothing beats self-regulation: evaluating yourself the risks of frequenting a particular establishment. As someone said in a different context, the price of freedom (including freedom from fear of death by fire) is eternal vigilance ...