Officials: Romania nightclub had history of fires

Records show that there were three small fires in 2012 and 2014; findings raise questions if authorities could have prevented tragedy

The Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania — The Romanian nightclub fire that killed at least 48 people and toppled the country's government was preceded by three blazes in the same building, according to records obtained by The Associated Press. The findings raise new questions about whether authorities could have stepped in earlier to prevent the tragedy.

The records, obtained under Romania's freedom of information law, show that there were three small fires at the old shoe factory that housed the Colectiv nightclub — one in 2012 and two in 2014. Fire safety experts say that should have been a warning.

"Once is bad, two is ridiculous, but once you get to three you know it's going to end in tears," said Chris Fitzgerald, who spent 33 years with the London Fire Brigade, some of them inspecting the British capital's best known music venues. Colin Todd, who manages a British fire safety consultancy, echoed those concerns.

"To have three fires in three years in the same building — it's quite a lot," he said.

The deadly fire at Colectiv broke out after pyrotechnics from a heavy metal concert ignited some foam decor, sending a crush of panicked revelers toward the club's single exit. The toll from the Oct. 30 blaze — which rose to 48 on Tuesday after a victim succumbed to his injuries — has horrified Romanians, underscoring for many how corruption has sapped the nation's safety standards. Romania's President Klaus Iohannis has said nobody would have died if fire regulations had been respected; government ministers resigned last week amid an explosion of public anger.

Arrests and resignations have followed almost daily. Colectiv's three owners have been detained, prosecutors have raided the district town hall and officials have questioned the local police chief over how the venue was allowed to operate with only one exit. On Tuesday, prosecutors announced the arrest of two employees of the Inspectorate for Emergency Situations, which manages Romania's fire and rescue services, accusing them of having turned a blind eye to safety violations at Colectiv.

The records obtained by AP suggest that officials should have known there was a problem.

In a one-page response to a freedom of information request, the Inspectorate for Emergency Situations said that while it had not been called to any blazes at the club itself, the old shoe factory where it operated had caught fire three times between 2012 and 2014.

The first incident happened on July 30, 2012 when an expansion joint caught fire, the inspectorate said. The second blaze happened at a security officer's booth in Sept. 15, 2014. The third fire erupted in a storage area on Nov. 28, 2014.

Emergency Situations official Raed Arafat told AP that the fires were small and occurred on the other side of the building from the club. Still, he acknowledged there were safety concerns and other club owners said having fires erupt around a venue like that was unusual.

"I have never had a fire in the past 10 years in any of the clubs that I've run, or anything like that," said Ionut Budi, who has owned the Luv nightclub in the Black Sea port of Constanta, and has managed nightclubs in the city for the past decade.

Fitzgerald, the Fire Brigade veteran, said things would probably have turned out differently had Colectiv been in London.

Firefighters "would have immediately referred it to the fire safety department, and then someone like me would have gone and done an inspection and if it was immediate risk to life would have issued them with a prohibition notice," he said.

"That's what would happen here."

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