When the rock band Great White took the stage of that Rhode Island nightclub, Brian Butler had a front row seat. Actually, the WPRI news photog was standing as he shot video for a story on safety in public buildings. When the band’s pyrotechnics ignited the club’s foam-covered ceiling seconds later, the young television station employee did what many others did; he got out. But he didn’t just leave, he backed out slowly, lens-up, camera recording. Other occupants crowded past him, as those who could think straight fled the sudden inferno. When he got outside, Butler appears to have wandered around the premises, shooting video of dazed patrons, including some who were jammed in a human pile-up at a side door. Needless to say, the resulting footage is difficult to watch.
Now, five years later, Butler’s employer WPRI-TV has agreed to pay $30 million to the victims of that fire, which killed 100 people and injured more than 200 more. The settlement rests on the allegation that Butler paused in an exit to film the chaos as patrons were trying to escape thus adding to the death toll. Butler and WPRI vehemently deny this and point to the footage for proof that no club patron was endangered by the photojournalist’s actions or lack thereof. Still, the station’s insurance company chose to settle the suit that names Butler personally responsible for “deaths of and severe personal injuries to plaintiffs.”
I’ve watched Butler’s footage repeatedly and still can’t say what - if anything - I’d have done differently. How could I? How could anyone? Until you’re put in that horrific situation, it’s impossible to know how you’ll react. The tape of course shows how Butler reacted. Thirty seconds into the show, Butler begins backing away from the stage. One minute later he is outside. No matter how many times I watch it, I cannot detect any discernable pause at the door. More disturbing is the shot of patrons struggling to escape the side door a few seconds later. Would I have rather Butler put down the camera and started pulling people out of the pile? Sure, but real life rarely resembles the closing act of a Hollywood blockbuster and I cannot honestly say what I might have done in a similar situation.
One thing I’m pretty sure of though: I would have kept rolling. After all, it’s what I (and Butler) do. To expect someone who looks at life through a glass tube not to do so when calamity suddenly strikes isn’t just disingenuous, it’s unrealistic. While no amount of footage is worth a human life, it should be noted the sights and (haunting) sounds recorded by Butler provided key evidence as to just what happened when Great White took the stage. Perhaps I’d feel different if a loved one of mine perished in the blaze, but to lay this tragedy on the sore shoulders of a single news shooter seems almost criminal. Others escaped that night to wander around the club’s parking lot in disbelief. Had Brian Butler not been carrying a TV camera with him at the time, he wouldn’t be facing this scorn and we wouldn’t know exactly what happened inside The Station. Litigate if you will, but leave Brian Butler alone. My guess is he doesn’t need to look at the footage he shot to relive that terrible night.