First, I must preface my remarks by saying that I do not know whether the house soundman survived this tragedy, unscathed or not. If he's been injured or killed, my thoughts and prayers go out to his friends and family in their time of need. If he survived unscathed, my thoughts go out to him, because he is probably wondering what he could have done to stop this horror from taking place.
Second, I was once a house soundman, too, working part time at a club in Boston called Chet's Last Call, on Causeway Street near the old Boston Garden. This was a little over ten years ago. The money was so-so, but the drinks were free and the waitresses were pretty cute. I'd played enough gigs there that I knew the set-up pretty well, and I thought it would be interesting to be on the other side of the board for a change. I also did a lot of studio production then, though there are more differences between live sound and recording than there are similarities.
The job of house sound engineer is pretty much the same everywhere in Clubland. You start off the night at around 6 or 7 PM, wiring the stage, dragging mics and stands out of the locker, firing up the effects rack, the board, and the amplifiers. Bands start showing up for soundcheck about this time, and if they've never played your club you've got to let them know where to store their cases and spare equipment, where the dressing room is, what the free/discount drink policy might be, set-up times, set times, and the load-out policy (some clubs require all bands to wait until after last call or closing before they can drag their gear back to the truck).
The majority of headlining acts tend to bring their own soundperson to the club, even if they're local, but the house engineer still needs to work with this person, if only to inform them of certain sound system idiosyncracies (e.g., this channel on the board is dead, this effects send works independently of the main level fader, please don't fucking write over the house reverb settings). Opening acts sometimes have their own person behind the board, but many do not, since they get short money compared to the headliner. Either way, the house engineer is invariably the person who affixes microphones and direct boxes to the bands' instruments, by virtue of being most familiar with the "snake" (a breakout box attached to a thick multiline cable that runs from the stage to the front-of-house mixing board).
The rest of the job is simple: start with sound check, checking each individual instrument, drum, and voice, tweaking timbre and effects, and then have the band run through a song or two, getting a relative balance and a good mix. While the band "strikes" the stage, pushing the backline amps against the far wall and pulling drums and keyboards offstage, you "spike" the settings, writing the positions of knobs and faders on a sheet of paper. Last band always goes first, and when the opening act is done you'll have a layer of two, three, or four amps on stage. Opening acts hate that, but hey: they're not headliners, so you don't have to care. Doing sound is somewhat like system administration in this respect: [clickety-click] You're going on at 8:30, 'kay, thanks, 'bye.
All that's left is to remain sober enough for the rest of the night so you can mix the bands that don't have an engineer (the sound does change when the club begins to fill with people) and shoulder-surf the engineers that other bands might have brought. I actually liked mixing bands, and I got to work with some interesing ones, like Bikini Kill, Reagan Youth, Killdozer, Dogzilla, and others. Even when the band sucked, you did the best you could, because even suckass bands deserved to sound good.
Now that I've explained the basic purpose of the house sound engineer, allow me to say why I think that The Station's engineer should have had some inkling of what was about to go wrong that night.
There's an aspect to doing house sound that wouldn't show up in the job description, if there was a job description: the need to keep the bands in compliance with applicable fire codes. This is more a matter of keeping the bands from leaving their empty drum and road cases in front of an exit than enforcing pyrotechnic and lighting policy. Still, there are examples of the latter: I once threatened to ban a suburban metal band if they didn't take their flashpots back to the van and forget about using them. Chet's was a tiny club, less than half the size of The Station, and flashpots would have filled the club with smoke even if they hadn't ignited the ceiling (which was a mere 6'4" above the stage floor). Another band wanted to erect a playground swing set in front of the stage, festooned with yellow police "CRIME SCENE" tape. I let them do this, partially because it didn't block the fire exits or tables, but mostly because it was a snowy Tuesday night, and I expected a crowd of maybe five people to show up.
Regardless of who owns the club, the house sound engineer "owns" the stage. He's responsible for the club's equipment, which is often leased from a sound and lighting company. Even if the headlining band brings their own sound system, the house engineer still has to supervise the loading and setup, making sure that there's ample power to run the band's PA system. According to the Great White contract rider, the band was using the club's sound reinforcement equipment, so the house soundman's involvement was greater than if the band's own system was brought in to the club.
This is the main reason why I believe that The Station's house engineer should have known pyrotechnics were going to be used and that they were too big for such a confined space. These particular spark generators (known as "gerbs") are about 6 to 8 inches in length, and about 2 inches in diameter. They're hard to miss. The engineer couldn't have overlooked them. Great White was the headliner, so no other band's equipment would have been on stage. The band was using the house PA, so the house engineer would no doubt have been wiring the stage and miking the band's gear. He should have known. It's possible that the soundman saw the pyro gear and didn't think it would spark a fire, though considering the stage's low ceiling it's hard to imagine that the soundman and the band's pyrotechnician wouldn't have discussed this possibility. If so, it's painfully obvious that they decided not to err on the side of caution in this case.
Second of all, there's the matter of the foam insulation, an eggcrate-like material used to deaden the back wall of the stage and soak up excess reverberation from the drum kit (in favor of a more controllable digital reverb effect added at the board). It was this insulation that burned like napalm once the spark projectors were set off, during the very first song of the set. As I mentioned, the house engineer is master of that stage, and it would surprise me if these foam panels were installed without his knowledge or consent, though whether the flammability was known I have no idea. I would actually tend to give the soundman the benefit of the doubt, that he had no idea how flammable the tiles were, though some might say ignorance is no excuse, especially in light of the nearly 100 deaths that resulted.
Still, the primary responsibility rests with the band Great White, in particular Jack Russell. It was their pyrotechnics that caused this tragedy. It was their ignorance of local laws that contributed to the death of 96 and injury to nearly two hundred people, many of them critically. It was their direct actions that resulted in the fourth most deadly entertainment venue disaster in US history (the Coconut Grove fire in Boston, November 1942, which took 492 lives, tops the list).
The contract rider specifies that the band should be billed as "Jack Russell's Great White", not Great White. This is the same Jack Russell who was interviewed on local television and said that the band had permission from the club to use their pyrotechnic display, that as far as he knew the band and club were in compliance with local laws. Yet Rhode Island's fire code states that an application should be filed at least fifteen days in advance and, for approval to be granted, the Fire Marshal must inspect the venue and review the plans for the proposed pyrotechnic display. We all know that this was never done.
A note about this concert rider: if you've never read one before, this might seem like the product of a stone control freak. But they're pretty much all like this, to greater or lesser degrees, and this particular one is less demanding than most. In fact, the requirements seem pretty modest. The last two pages cover the food and beverage provisions, and the absence of any form of alcohol is conspicuous. Even local headliners demand a case of beer at the very least. The most elaborate rider I'd ever seen belonged to Motown legends The Temptations; it spanned fifty pages, including some rather obscure vegetarian meals, and enough alcohol for sixty people, even though no more than five actual band members were touring (they used local players as a "pick-up" band).
The most conspicuous omission is on this page:
JACK RUSSELL'S GREAT WHITE DO NOT CARRY A TOURING LIGHTING TECHNICIAN. PLEASE PROVIDE A LIGHTING TECHNICIAN FOR THE SHOW.
This seem strange to me: it's invariably the lighting tech's job to set up and perform the pyrotechnics. If not, that job is the responsibility of a second person who works under the lighting tech. I've never heard of a band that had a pyro tech and not a lighting director.
I have two explanations for this. First, this might be an old contract rider. However, the catering rider, consisting of the last two pages, bear a date of "2002/2003", and the preceeding pages mention Knight Records, the independent label that signed the band last year. Regardless, this clause in the rider by no means precludes the possibility that the band picked up a lighting tech just for this part of the tour. They did use this same display in at least five other clubs recently, including the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, NJ.
The other explanation, albeit more remote, is that one of the road crew set up and performed the pyrotechnic display, and that the firing of 10' tongues of sparks in a club where the ceiling was 10' from the floor was a mistake only a rank amateur could make. It's not unheard of for a member of the road crew to double as a lighting or pyro technician, even if extra pay isn't involved, primarily because it kills the time between load-in and load-out. What the hell else are you going to do in West Warwick, RI on a weeknight? You don't have a car, you've only got a $20 per diem payment in your pocket, and you can't get too drunk before load-out or the rest of the crew will make you ride to the next stop on the tour in the bus's luggage compartment. Touring is boring.
Whether it was a temporary lighting tech or a member of the road crew, primary responsibility for this tragedy lies with Jack Russell's Great White. However, I still believe that that The Station's house sound engineer, responsible for all stage management, could have prevented this from happening.