By Michael Traikos
The Thursday night line a Reilly’s snakes up five flights of stairs. Its head sits three floors up, behind a doorway manned by a bald-shaven bouncer. The body of the line slithers down four flights of stairs, bulging over the plastic-covered railings and bending around corners. Its tail wraps around the wooden planks of a makeshift trellace, before spilling out onto Yonge Street.
Tonight, the queue massive. At least a hundred people, the majority of them university students, cram together. And like a Toronto traffic jam, no one’s going anywhere. Those at the end of the line decide to make the best of their time waiting and smoke what smells like marijuana. Sitting on a railing, they pass the hand-rolled joint back and forth when a few brave individuals attempt to do the impossible — walk down the stairs. With everyone pushing upwards, those leaving do their best to struggle against the current of stagnant bodies. One girl tries to get through by flinging her body forward, but her high-heeled feet miss a couple steps and her slender frame crashes to the ground. A majority of those waiting in line snicker, but if it was the entire club rushing down the stairs, escaping the confines of this downtown club it would be no laughing matter.
“God forbid if anything did happen, no one would get out,” said Beth Collins, a bartender at Reilly’s for the past nine years.
That was the situation in a Rhode Island nightclub last month, when 96 clubgoers burned to death in a case of overcrowding.
A nightclub burst into flames during a rock band’s pyrotechnics display, injuring more than 180 as customers rushed to escape. Club officials have stated that the special effects were used without permission.
The dire incident has made Reilly’s think twice about their own rock band bookings.
“Our owner freaked out when one of the bands brought a smoke machine.”
Reilly’s, a historical building which rests above the Foot Locker in the Yonge and Dundas Streets area, doesn’t try to compete with Toronto’s entertainment district, but is popular with Ryerson students come Thursdays. Its top floor can accommodate 320 drunken people and the bar one floor below can hold just under 240. The bar, which looks more suites for the tree friendly landscape of Muskoka than downtown Toronto, is built like a wood cabin. The pathway to get in is made completely of wood, as are the walls, the floors, the bar, the tables, the chairs, the bathrooms stalls — a novelty sign above the main floor bar unwittingly hints at the dangers of the cabin-like atmosphere: “Be kind to smokers — we haven’t got much time left.”
The emergency exit instructions Collins was given echoes the dire situation anyone caught clubbing would be in if the bar had to be evacuated.
“Half go to the fire exit, half go to the main exit,” Collins says, her outstretched arms blindly signalling in opposite directions.
Collins insists Reilly’s is not only up to code, but safer than most downtown clubs.
“We’re lucky. Our boss is very paranoid and conscious of [fire safety],” she says. “When you’re on the second floor you have to be extra careful.”
Amanda Warren, a third-year business student, isn’t so sure about Reilly’s.
“I’ve seen the place packed with so many people that it was impossible to get from one side to the other,” she said.
Warren said that since the two U.S. club disasters, she’s extra cautious about clubbing.
“It’s changed the way I look at clubs,” she said. “I make a point of knowing where the fire exit is in case there’s a fire.”
Reilly’s has been lucky in its nine years along Yonge Street, with only one small fire. The bar’s owner has taken extra precautions since the two club disasters rocked the United States last month. Bouncers use a hand counter to monitor how many people are allowed inside, and Collins says bouncers are more conscious of clearing the stairwell. Still, even the risk of fire is not enough to deter people from climbing the narrow steps to buy a beer.
“Our regulars are diehard. If there was a fire they’d get over it to get a drink,” said Collins.
The willingness of Torontonians to clamber over one another to get into the most overcrowded bars is the reason why Toronto’s plain clothes police unit regularly inspects such places.
Detective Danny Bell heads a team of seven officers who spend their Friday and Saturday nights counting heads in Toronto’s busiest clubs. Since January, the unit has made 150 charges for cramming in too many customers and other violations.
“When you walk into a place and it’s shoulder to shoulder, you know its overcrowded,” says Bell.
Last year, Bell’s unit charged Oakham House for failing to cut off excessively drunk customers.
It’s escape route, however, is more than safe, says bar manager Ismael Viegas.
Located in the basement of Oakham House, the Ram in the Rye at first appears to be a deathtrap. But on closer inspection, multiple exits allow customers to escape safely from the campus bar.
“[Safety] is an ongoing thing,” says Viegas, who has a representative go over fire safety training last month. “We’ve got seven different exist that we can go through.”
Reilly’s has a fire exit that can be accessed from every floor. When it first took the space above Foot Locker almost 10 years ago, a single ladder was the only means of escape. About three bouncers work the club on a Thursday night. One stands by the third floor entrance and uses a mechanical hand counter to tell him when he can stop letting people through and allow the ling to continue to clog. Clubs are told when applying for a Liquor License how many people they can hold, but that doesn’t mean they can’t find ways to cram in even more.
“I do know that generally speaking it’s the club owner’s advantage to have a higher occupancy. That’s the way it goes,” says Captain David Cooney of Toronto Fire Prevention, who says club owners will hire an architect to modify the club’s dimensions, which can sometimes allow almost double the amount of people allowed to party inside.
“Is it safe? It’s safe in terms of the law. The guys at the ministry say so, but that doesn’t mean I’d be caught in there,” says Cooney.