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Tue December 9, 2003
Band Manager, Nightclub Owners Indicted in Station Fire
By Brooke Donald, Associated Press
WARWICK, R.I. – The owners of The Station nightclub and the tour manager for Great White were indicted Tuesday by a grand jury on charges related to February's fire that started after the band's pyrotechnics set the building on fire, killing 100 people and injuring scores of other concertgoers.
Here & Now: WRNI's Martha Bebinger reports
on the attorney general's meeting earlier today
Club owners Jeffrey and Michael Derderian were each charged with 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter with criminal negligence, and 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter in violation of a misdemeanor. Tour manager Dan Biechele, who lit the pyrotechnics that sparked the blaze, was also charged with 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter with criminal negligence, and 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter in violation of a misdemeanor.
The three men were being arraigned Tuesday afternoon in Kent County Superior Court.
The Feb. 20 fire, which injured about 200 people, started after the pyrotechnics were shot off just seconds into Great White's first song. Sparks set fire to flammable foam that had been placed around the stage as soundproofing. Thick smoke quickly spread through the West Warwick club and within minutes, the one-story, wooden building was engulfed in flames, trapping patrons as many rushed toward the same exit.
While the band maintained it received permission to set off the fireworks, the club owners insisted they never authorized the fiery display, long a staple of heavy metal bands.
Members of the 1980s rock band Great White, who have been named in several civil suits, were not charged by the grand jury.
Attorney General Patrick Lynch, who met privately Tuesday with survivors and the relatives of some of those killed, planned to hold a news conference later Tuesday to comment on the case. The fire in the blue-collar community of West Warwick, about 12 miles south of Providence, seemed to touch everyone in Rhode Island, the smallest state in the union where connections run deep.
The fire in the blue-collar community of West Warwick, about 12 miles south of Providence, seemed to touch everyone in Rhode Island, the smallest state in the union where connections run deep.
"They say there are six degrees of separation in this world. In Rhode Island, there's a degree and a half," Lynch said after the blaze. "The pain rips through this community quicker than any other."
Authorities investigated the blaze for more than nine months, combing the charred remains of the site for evidence and interviewing witnesses. They seized computers, documents, club records and appointment books from band members and the club's owners. Investigators also took inspection reports from the town, receipts from a foam manufacturer and collected dozens of items from the site of the fire, including club doors, wiring, spray paint and foam samples.
The cause of the fire was known almost immediately and the final moments of those who died were captured by a local television cameraman who was gathering footage for a story on safety in public places. Images of people trying to escape the flames were broadcast nationwide in the ensuing months.
As part of the investigation, officials looked at the use of pyrotechnics in the building, which was built in the 1940s, by other bands that had played there over the years.
Investigators also looked into possible overcrowding. Town records show the club's capacity was 404 when all tables were removed, while a national guide for booking agents had listed the club with a capacity of 550. A Providence Journal investigation estimated the number of patrons at about 430 people at the time of the fire.
Investigators also examined why town inspectors had failed to note the highly flammable polyurethane foam that had been installed around the stage as soundproofing. The Derderians bought the foam shortly after buying the club in early 2000 to satisfy neighbors who had long complained of noise.
Experts have said the polyurethane foam was a packaging material and not suitable for use as soundproofing, particularly in a public building.
Fire and building inspection reports released by the town of West Warwick never mention the foam that surrounded the stage. The Station passed its last inspection, which was two months before the fire.
In the wake of the fire, Gov. Don Carcieri called for emergency inspections of all public buildings similar to The Station nightclub, and the state formed a commission to investigate the blaze. State lawmakers passed stringent new fire-safety standards, including stricter rules on sprinkler requirements for older buildings.
Jeffrey Derderian, one of the club's owners, was a longtime television reporter in Rhode Island and Boston, and known to many in the region. He was at the club during the night of the fire, and afterward, he found himself on the other side of the microphone.
"It was very difficult to express what I experienced at the club that evening, trying to get people out safely," Derderian told reporters in a tearful statement two days after the fire. "Please know I tried as hard as I could. Many people didn't make it out and that is a horror that will haunt my family and I for the rest of our lives."
The fire also touched Great White, which recently wrapped up a five-month tour to raise money for fire victims. The band raised just under $64,000, but it's tour received criticism from family members of victims who blamed the band for the fire and said the tour was self-serving.
The band's guitarist, Ty Longley, never made it out of the fire.
"If this has taught me anything, it's how fragile and precious life really is," lead singer Jack Russell said during an event shortly after the fire.
Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.