Fire marshal cites reasons for club closure

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 20, 2014

It was the death of a young Opp man earlier this month that put the Little Harlem Club in the spotlight, but it was unsafe exits and the lack of a sprinkler system that closed it down.

Alabama State Fire Marshal Edward Paulk issued a cease-and-desist order against the establishment on Monday.

Thursday, Paulk said, while the order was not a direct result of the violent incident, it did lead his office to investigate the safety of the building – which was found to be “extremely” lacking

“We found several problems,” he said. “They were very basic; the fact that this appeared to be just an old building thrown up. When you have a building that is going to hold more than 49 people, it must be designed by a professional engineer to make sure it’s equipped with the proper exits and safety precautions a building housing that many people should have.”

Paulk said one major violation found at the club was that none of the building’s three exits met basic safety standards.

“The doors swing in the wrong direction,” Paulk said. “Doors in a commercial building have to swing in the direction of egress. None of the doors swung out.

“When you have a fire or a shooting, people are trying to get out in a hurry,” he said. “If they are crowding up at the door and pushing, the last thing you can do is back up to open the door. The last thing you need is for people to be falling and creating a bottleneck.”

Paulk said the club’s three exits also lacked proper landings and step-downs.

He said another basic, yet extremely dangerous violation found at Little Harlem was the lack of a sprinkler system.

“An occupancy load is more than 100 and if it is used as a bar, it has to have a sprinkler system,” he said. “Forty-nine is the magic number for which you have to provide a lot of panic hardware. It triggers a lot of requirements.”

On the morning of June 8, when a shooting at the club killed one man and injured four others, authorities estimate there were 200 to 300 people inside the building.”

“This building was not properly designed,” Paulk said. “It had none of the basic safety features. It’s a tremendous hazard.”

Additionally, Paulk said the building did not comply with commercial wiring standards.

Paulk said, while the club was technically throwing a private party on the night of the shooting – subsequently allowing, but not selling, alcohol – the circumstances qualify the establishment as a bar.

“Absolutely, (they did),” he said. “If you’re serving alcohol and it’s not a single-family dwelling, it becomes a commercial establishment. It becomes a banquet hall and is the same as a bar.”

Paulk said owner Franklin Mount, who holds the business license for the club, may apply to reopen the building once the improvements are made, but may not use it for any commercial purpose in the meantime.

“It was my responsibility to abate that hazard,” he said.

The Opp City Council on Monday tabled a decision on whether or not to pull Mount’s business license, as recommended by Opp Chief of Police Mike McDonald. They are expected to hand down a decision at the council’s next scheduled meeting on Mon., July 7.