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From sorrow to second-guessing

After a night of tragedy that killed 99, the Rhode Island nightclub fire probe widens, and fingers are pointed.

March 07, 2003|Stephen Braun | Times Staff Writer

WEST WARWICK, R.I. — There were so many details to take care of that night, so many things to go wrong.

It was almost show time at the Station. The old wood-frame nightclub pulsed with an excited mob of heavy-metal music fanatics from blue-collar towns across Rhode Island and Massachusetts. They were ready to rock, primed for a rare visit by the L.A.-based band Great White.

The group had lost some luster from its 1980s glory days, but was soldiering on with a whirlwind club tour. Its droning anthems blared from the dashboard stereos of pickups and SUVs inching along a two-lane road toward the suburban Providence club.

Club manager Kevin Beese was at the bar, working the beer taps. Paul Vanner, the Station's gangly sound man, was hunched over his monitors. Great White singer Jack Russell had vanished into a tattoo parlor, leaving tour manager Dan Biechele to take care of last-minute preparations. Club co-owner Jeffrey Derderian was at the door, odd man out among the mullet haircuts and leather jackets. By 10:30 p.m., Beese recalled, 310 patrons had already surged past the bouncers -- 10 more than the club's legal capacity. Another 50 headbangers waited outside in the bitter February night.

At 11 p.m., the house lights dimmed. In darkness, Biechele set off a brace of fiery pinwheel fans filled with tubed sparklers known as "gerbs." The sparks were supposed to burn briefly and safely. But incendiary white rain ignited dark strips of combustible foam soundproofing on the wall behind the stage. "You could see the stuff on the walls glowing red," Vanner recalled.

But the firestorm that trapped and killed 99 people within minutes was triggered by more than the spinning fire wheels. Communications breakdowns, errant cost cutting and safety failures mounted in the weeks and months before the Feb. 20 tragedy. Lapses in judgment and oversight appear to have taken place among band members, the club's owners and staff, even public officials charged with ensuring the safety of the Station's patrons.

They were mostly the errors of music industry veterans who prided themselves on their savvy -- middle-aged journeymen who can be found in any American nightclub, stoking rock dreams at a cash premium.

"Maybe we weren't a perfect club, but in Rhode Island, we had a good name," said Beese, 38. "I guess there were things we missed."

Great White's "pyro" show was ignited in violation of Rhode Island law. A succession of other apparently faulty decisions are still being unraveled by state prosecutors and police investigators. The band claims the owners gave advance permission to set off pyrotechnics, but Derderian and his brother, Michael, who co-own the club, said they never gave or were asked for consent.

The fire appeared to be fed by the highly flammable foam soundproofing on the club's walls. Investigators are trying to determine whether that plastic soundproofing was banned by Rhode Island safety laws -- and if West Warwick city fire inspectors failed in their duty to detect the material. The Station's overcrowding could also have been a factor in slowing terrified patrons as they tried to flee the rapidly spreading flames.

Great White's surviving members -- guitarist Ty Longley died in the blaze -- began testifying before a state grand jury this week that has convened in the widening criminal investigation.

Tour manager Biechele, identified by Beese and others as the man who ignited the pyrotechnics, hired a local lawyer. So have the Derderians, whose business records have been seized. Relatives of two victims filed wrongful-death lawsuits Tuesday against the band, the club owners, a fire inspector and others.

"We're looking at the actions of any number of people," said Rhode Island Atty. Gen. Patrick Lynch, who is heading the state investigation.

Rhode Island state fire laws set out clear guidelines for the use of flammable materials in commercial establishments. Accelerants like those used by Great White require a city permit; a separate state "certificate of competency" is required for anyone triggering gerbs or other fireworks. Plastic urethane foam is banned in gathering places that cater to the public unless it is treated with fire-retardant chemicals."The reality is it's a very loosely regulated area. People who work in clubs and the bands that come through don't always communicate well," said one lawyer involved in the case. "Rock groups aren't known for their command structures, and clubs cut corners. It's a recipe for disaster."

Beese and others who worked and performed at the Station say they were unaware of some laws governing the use of fireworks. Pyrotechnic displays were used rarely at the club, Beese insisted, slipped in by musicians eager to win a reputation for outrageousness.

"You'd hear: 'Oh, we're just gonna do a little smoke and confetti.' And then they'd take it to the next level," Beese said. "They'd get away with whatever they could."

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