Grief still smolders 10 years after RI club fire

Fire marshal who inspected the club missed the foam because he was focused on wrong-way swinging door

By Michelle R. Smith
The Associated Press

WEST WARWICK, R.I. — Along a busy commercial road here sits a 10-year-old scar that hasn't healed. Next to a crumbling parking lot, rusty folding chairs sit amid dozens of handmade crosses decorated with beads, stuffed animals and fading photos.

This is where 100 people were killed Feb. 20, 2003, when the tour manager for the rock band Great White set off a flashy pyrotechnics display in an overcrowded nightclub. Its owners had tried to stem noise complaints by lining the walls with what turned out to be flammable packing foam.

In less than a minute, a Thursday evening out for more than 400 music lovers and club employees turned into a nightmare as flames raced through the one-story wooden roadhouse. Some were lucky to escape with nothing more than bloody cuts or singed hair. Others were crushed beneath a throng that surged for the front exit, or died from breathing toxic fumes created by the burning foam. Others survived but were horribly burned, some losing their eyesight or their hands, or becoming so troubled from the horrors they saw that they attempted suicide.

Ten years later, the imprint of the fire remains in this tiny state of just over 1 million residents. It remains in the survivors and victims' family members, many of whom feel justice was never served and who have found different ways to move forward with their lives. It remains in the scars — physical and mental — of the people who made it out alive. It remains in the sadness so many here still feel about that night, and the hope that it can be prevented from happening again.

"There's corruption and stupidity and greed, but there's also hope and bravery," said Dave Kane, who lost his 18-year-old son in the fire. "Our children did not die for nothing. There's a great legacy here, and if people listen to it, they will save other lives."

Any number of people could have stopped the fire from happening: Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, the owners of The Station nightclub; the town fire marshal who failed to note the flammable foam inside the club; and Daniel Biechele, Great White's tour manager, who set off the pyrotechnics without a permit.

The only people criminally charged were the Derderians and Biechele, angering many who felt officials including West Warwick Fire Marshal Denis Larocque should have been charged, or Great White members including lead singer Jack Russell. Great White guitarist Ty Longley was among those killed.

Families questioned why Larocque never cited the brothers for the foam. Years later, it emerged that he told investigators he missed it in part because he was focused on a door that swung the wrong way. They also wondered why the capacity of the club was revised up to 404. Regardless of capacity, prosecutors said the club was packed with 458 people the night of the fire.

They hoped a trial would answer those and other questions. Did Great White have permission to use the pyrotechnics? The Derderians said it didn't, but the band insisted it did. Why did the Dederians install flammable polyurethane foam instead of soundproofing fit for the interior of a nightclub? The Derderians said they didn't know it was flammable. Why wasn't the club closed after being cited multiple times for code violations?

In 2006, hopes of a trial were dashed when first Biechele, then the Derderians, reached plea deals. Biechele pleaded guilty to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter. At his sentencing hearing, he tearfully apologized and took responsibility.

"I don't know that I'll ever forgive myself for what happened that night, so I can't expect anybody else to," he said. He was sentenced to serve four years in prison but was released on parole after less than two.

Later that year, the Derderians struck a deal, agreeing to plead no contest rather than guilty. Jeffrey avoided prison time, while Michael was sentenced to serve four years. Families of the dead were outraged by sentences they believed were too lenient, and by the fact that the brothers would be allowed to plead no contest, rather than guilty. At their sentencing hearing, many aimed their anger straight at Superior Court Judge Francis Darigan, with one telling him, "Lady Justice in Rhode Island is blind, but she's also deaf."

Michael Derderian served less than three years in prison.

Later, lawsuits brought by families of the dead and the injured were settled for $176 million. Dozens of defendants agreed to settle, including the state, a salesman for the company that sold the foam, and the parent of WPRI-TV, where Derderian was a reporter and whose cameraman was there and was accused of getting in the way of people fleeing. A large portion of the money went to lawyers' fees. Those with the most severe injuries received the largest settlements, but many of them face hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in medical bills. Some survivors declared bankruptcy as they awaited settlement checks.

Gina Russo, of Cranston, was burned over 40 percent of her body. She has had dozens of operations and expects they will continue for the rest of her life.  She permanently lost her hair, and she found it difficult to look at herself in the mirror in the months after the fire. Her fiancé, Fred Crisostomi, was killed.

Several months after the fire, someone sent her the story of the phoenix, the mythical bird that is reborn from the ashes. It came at a time when, she says, she was just realizing she wanted to survive her ordeal. She realized that no matter what's in her way, she wanted to rise above it.

Russo now leads The Station Fire Memorial Foundation, which is working to build a permanent memorial at the fire site. She said she believes Crisostomi's optimism and lift about life was somehow living in her since the fire.

"It completely changed my life in a positive way. I plan on taking full advantage of it," she said.

Kane's son, 18-year-old Nicholas O'Neill, was the youngest person to die. Kane has been a vocal critic of state and local authorities, the Derderians and how the prosecution was handled. He called then-Attorney General Patrick Lynch a buffoon on "Good Morning America." Kane said it is disheartening that more than 230 people were killed in a nightclub in Brazil last month in a fire that had eerie similarities, including a band's pyrotechnics igniting foam used as soundproofing.

But despite the anger that lingers, he thinks good can come from the fire.

Kane believes his son is still with him and gives him signs of his presence. He has let them know that he did not feel pain at the end, Kane said, and helped urge his father on as he wrote a statement of forgiveness he read at Biechele's sentencing hearing. Kane speaks to audiences about his belief that Nick and all our dead loved ones are still with us.

"We're in a much better position than so many of the people who lost people. So many of the families, they're devastated, they're destroyed in so many ways," he said. "One of the ways I am trying to help people is to tell the story."

At the fire site one recent afternoon, Nazar Butt stopped to pay his respects. He has made the same stop a few times, even though he knows no one who died here.

"It could happen to anybody," he said.

Survivors and victims' relatives still tend to the land. After storms, they plow snow from the parking lot and right the crosses that dot the site, many of which are made out of floorboards salvaged from the club's remains. The Station Fire Memorial Foundation in September secured the land for a permanent memorial after a yearslong effort.

The group will soon ask families to come remove any items they wish to keep. Then, they will gather up what's left and surround the site with chain link fencing, and construction will start. The left-behind mementos will be entombed beneath what is now the parking lot. Workers will not dig on the site itself for fear of disturbing human remains.

When the memorial is finished in a year or two, people will be able to stop by and read about The Station fire on Feb. 20, 2003. One hundred years from now, people will still know what happened here.

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