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Quick work by a nightclub patron who grabbed a fire extinguisher, and a relatively new requirement for nightclubs to have sprinkler systems helped prevent a New Year’s Eve arson at a crowded Capitol Hill night spot from becoming a potential tragedy.

“This could potentially have been much worse,” said Seattle Fire Department spokesman Kyle Moore. “You have an establishment full of patrons and an intentionally set fire. That’s a very dangerous situation.”

According to Seattle police, just after midnight Tuesday, someone poured gasoline, then set it on fire, on a carpeted stairway at Neighbours, which bills itself as Seattle’s largest and longest-running gay club.

About 750 people were in the club at the time.

Someone quickly put the fire out with an extinguisher. Someone also pulled a fire alarm, which alerted the crowd to evacuate, and the building’s sprinkler system turned on.

As of Wednesday evening, no one had been arrested and the motive for the fire was not clear.

Still, the arson at the Broadway club raised the possibility of a hate crime, coming as Seattle’s first openly gay mayor, Ed Murray, took office.

“If there’s any indication it’s a hate crime, we’ll pass it on to our bias unit,” said police spokeswoman Renee Witt. She said the arson and bomb squads are investigating.

An empty gasoline can was found at the top of the stairway, which leads to the bar’s mezzanine overlooking the dance floor.

Murray, who spent his first morning on the job touring the city’s Emergency Operations Center, said he was thankful no one was injured, but concerned that the club had been targeted.

“Right now, the most important thing is to find the individual or individuals responsible, and then determine the motive for this potentially very destructive action,” he said in an email.

Moore said the fire did about $1,000 in damage to the building. An additional $6,000 in damage to the contents was caused largely by the dousing from the sprinklers, Moore said.

A state law that took effect in 2009, prompted by deadly club fires elsewhere, required nightclubs to have sprinkler systems.

On the damp sidewalk and alley outside Neighbours on Wednesday afternoon, flattened paper tiaras and plastic leis remained from the New Year’s celebration.

Patrons who had to evacuate the night before returned for coats and credit cards left behind when the fire broke out.

Hazel Mouayang, 23, said several drag queens on stage had led the packed crowd in a countdown to midnight. She described the atmosphere as festive and friendly when everyone was told to get out.

A patron returning for her coat who didn’t want to give her name, described the party as “superfun” and characterized the premeditated attack as “a bummer.”

“Someone is not a nice person,” she said.

A club employee, Kevin Parcasio, said that although the club got its start 30 years ago as a gay bar, it is now host to a diverse clientele and often has more straight customers than gay. He said there was no indication why someone would start a fire there.

Because of the water damage, he said he didn’t know when Neighbours would reopen.

One of the club’s New Year’s performers, Aleksa Manila, gave a shout out to the club Wednesday on Facebook, calling it the No. 1 gay nightclub in the Northwest.

“Nothing’s gonna stop us from celebrating diversity and providing a safe space for everyone,” Manila wrote.

Lynn Thompson: or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes