After Fire, Salesman Sniffs Opportunity

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  2/24/2003

CRANSTON, R.I. - The moment his beeper alerted him to a terrible fire that ripped through a nightclub, killing an untold number of people, Richard Skinner sprang into action.

The Northeast regional manager for the National Fire Sprinkler Association knew that he had a short time frame in which to promote his industry's flame-dousing products, which over the last few days he has cheerfully held before cameras, insisting to journalists that the sprinklers could have prevented the tragedy.

"I don't feel guilty in the least," he said between interviews this weekend at a sprawling state emergency headquarters, where journalists from around the country eagerly recorded his pitch. "We need to let the general public know how great sprinklers are."

On Friday morning, after calling multiple television stations in hopes of setting up interviews, Skinner put on a dark pinstripe suit and a bright yellow tie, hopped in his Grand Am, and raced from his home in Queens, N.Y., to the scene of the devastation in West Warwick, R.I.

As firefighters removed the last of the bodies from the rubble, Skinner, 37, began making the rounds, telling as many reporters who would listen about the wonders of sprinklers. Though the nightclub, The Station, wasn't required by law to install sprinklers, Skinner told journalists: "It's a cop-out. The codes are minimum standards. They can go above that whenever they want - and you get a major insurance break to boot."

By Friday afternoon, he had made a video at a fire-testing lab in Rhode Island, showing how one of his sprinklers, a "fast-response pendant," a sprinkler head that sells for just $2, could have extinguished a blaze similar to the one that destroyed The Station.

Soon after, while passing out dozens of business cards, he was showing the video on his laptop to small groups of reporters and handing out copies to journalists from stations around the country.

As soon as he could get a few minutes of Skinner's time, Martin DiCaro, a reporter from WHJJ-AM in Providence, put the sprinkler merchant on the air and Skinner was saying: "Here's my conclusion: Sprinklers would have put out the fire. . . . There would have been a lot less pandemonium if the club had sprinklers. . . . Sprinklers would have prevented people from being burned."

After the interview, DiCaro said, "We didn't put him on the air to sell something. That was never the point. But maybe now more people will put sprinklers in buildings."

Another radio reporter for WPRO-AM in Providence said: "He just came up to me, and I was going live in a few minutes, so I decided to interview him."

Skinner, a manager for the national trade group, apparently wasn't the only businessman seizing a chance to promote his products amid the publicity surrounding the tragedy. The state's Emergency Management Association received a fax this weekend from a company offering bargain caskets.

By the end of Saturday, Skinner was content. All his efforts didn't go to waste. He got more publicity than he could have asked for.

With the last press conference of the day done, Skinner packed up his laptop and sample sprinklers, slipped on his trench coat, and said: "I've spoken to every media organization here - not a bad day."

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.

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