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The fire at 40 seconds. Daniel Biechele is facing camera at right.
|Date||February 20, 2003|
|Location||West Warwick, Rhode Island|
The Station nightclub fire was the fourth deadliest nightclub fire in American history, killing 100 people. The fire began at 11:07 PM EST, on Thursday, February 20, 2003, at The Station, a glam metal and rock n roll themed nightclub located at 211 Cowesett Avenue in West Warwick, Rhode Island.
The fire was caused by pyrotechnics set off by the tour manager of the evening's headlining band, Great White, which ignited flammable sound insulation foam in the walls and ceilings surrounding the stage. A fast-moving fire engulfed the club in 5½ minutes. Some 230 people were injured and another 132 escaped uninjured. Video footage of the fire shows its initial growth, billowing smoke that quickly made escape impossible, and the exit blockage that further hindered evacuation.
||This section needs additional citations for verification. Please help improve this article by adding citations to reliable sources. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed. (February 2012)|
The fire started just seconds into headlining band Great White's opening song, "Desert Moon," when pyrotechnics set off by the band's tour manager, Daniel Biechele, ignited flammable acoustic foam on both sides of the drummer's alcove at the back of the stage. The pyrotechnics were gerbs, cylindrical devices that produce a controlled spray of sparks. Biechele used three gerbs set to spray sparks 15 feet (4.6 m) for 15 seconds. Two gerbs were at 45-degree angles, with the middle one pointing straight up. The flanking gerbs became the principal cause of the fire.
The flames were at first thought to be part of the act; only as the fire reached the ceiling and smoke began to billow did people realize it was uncontrolled. Twenty seconds after the pyrotechnics ended, the band stopped playing and lead singer Jack Russell calmly remarked into the microphone, "Wow...that's not good." In less than a minute, the entire stage was engulfed in flames, with most of the band members and entourage fleeing for the west exit by the stage.
By this time, the nightclub's Wheelock AS fire alarm system had made everyone acutely aware of the impending danger, and, although there were four possible exits, most people naturally headed for the front door through which they had entered. The ensuing stampede led to a crush in the narrow hallway leading to that exit, quickly blocking the exit completely and resulting in numerous deaths and injuries among the patrons and staff. Of the 462 in attendance, 100 lost their lives, and about half were injured, either from burns, smoke inhalation, or trampling. Among those who perished in the fire were Great White's lead guitarist, Ty Longley, and the show's emcee, WHJY DJ Mike "The Doctor" Gonsalves.
The fire, from its inception, was caught on videotape by cameraman Brian Butler for WPRI-TV of Providence, and the beginning of the tape was released to national news stations. Butler was there for a planned piece on nightclub safety being reported by Jeffrey Derderian, a WPRI news reporter who was also a part-owner of The Station. WPRI-TV would later be cited for conflict of interest in having a reporter do a report concerning his own property. The report had been inspired by the E2 nightclub stampede in Chicago that had claimed 21 lives only three days earlier. At the scene of the fire, Butler gave this account of the tragedy:
“ ...It was that fast. As soon as the pyrotechnics stopped, the flame had started on the egg-crate backing behind the stage, and it just went up the ceiling. And people stood and watched it, and some people backed off. When I turned around, some people were already trying to leave, and others were just sitting there going, 'Yeah, that's great!' And I remember that statement, because I was, like, this is not great. This is the time to leave.
At first, there was no panic. Everybody just kind of turned. Most people still just stood there. In the other rooms, the smoke hadn't gotten to them, the flame wasn't that bad, they didn't think anything of it. Well, I guess once we all started to turn toward the door, and we got bottle-necked into the front door, people just kept pushing, and eventually everyone popped out of the door, including myself.
That's when I turned back. I went around back. There was no one coming out the back door anymore. I kicked out a side window to try to get people out of there. One guy did crawl out. I went back around the front again, and that's when you saw people stacked on top of each other, trying to get out of the front door. And by then, the black smoke was pouring out over their heads.
I noticed when the pyro stopped, the flame had kept going on both sides. And then on one side, I noticed it come over the top, and that's when I said, 'I have to leave.' And I turned around, I said, 'Get out, get out, get to the door, get to the door!' And people just stood there.
There was a table in the way at the door, and I pulled that out just to get it out of the way so people could get out easier. And I never expected it take off as fast as it did. It just -- it was so fast. It had to be two minutes tops before the whole place was black smoke.
Thousands of mourners attended a memorial service at St. Gregory the Great Church in Warwick on February 24, 2003, to remember those lost in the fire. Following the tragedy, Governor Donald Carcieri declared a moratorium on pyrotechnic displays at venues that hold fewer than 300 people.
Five months after the fire, Great White started a benefit tour, saying a prayer at the beginning of each concert for the friends and families touched by that fateful night and giving a portion of the proceeds to the Station Family Fund. The band said they would never play the song "Desert Moon" again. "I don't think I could ever sing that song again," said lead singer and founder Jack Russell. Guitarist Mark Kendall stated, "We haven't played that song. Things that bring back memories of that night we try to stay away from. And that song reminds us of that night. We haven't played it since then and probably never will." The band has since resumed playing the song.
The fire was the deadliest in the United States since the 1977 Southgate, Kentucky, Beverly Hills Supper Club fire that claimed 165 lives. The worst nightclub fire occurred on November 28, 1942, in Boston at the Cocoanut Grove, where 492 died after paper decorations caught fire. The Rhythm Night Club Fire in Natchez, Mississippi, claimed the lives of approximately 209 persons during a dance on April 23, 1940. The Station fire exceeded the death toll of 87 in the March 25, 1990 Happyland Fire in the Bronx, New York City.
The site of the fire was cleared, and a multitude of crosses were placed as memorials, left by loved ones of the deceased. Surviving family members have announced their intention to acquire the site and erect a permanent memorial.
On May 20, 2003, nondenominational services began to be held at the site of the fire on a monthly basis. Family members and friends gathered to memorialize their loved ones. In June 2003, the Station Fire Memorial Foundation was formed with the purpose of purchasing the property, building and maintaining a memorial. The Foundation continues to hold yearly services on the site, near the anniversary of the fire.
||This section needs additional citations for verification. Please help improve this article by adding citations to reliable sources. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed. (January 2010)|
In the days after the fire, there were considerable efforts to assign and avoid blame on the part of the band, the nightclub owners, the manufacturers and distributors of the foam material and pyrotechnics, and the concert promoters. Through attorneys, club owners said they did not give permission to the band to use pyrotechnics. Band members claimed they had permission.
While investigators focused on the foam material that had been installed behind the stage, claiming the foam was intended for use in packaging and product display, testimony available to the public contradicts this. Testimony by Barry Warner, the salesman from American Foam who sold the foam to the Derderians, confirmed that there was a sales order for high-density acoustic soundproofing foam. Chemical analysis of the actual foam that was in the nightclub on the evening of the fire was never released to the public. A roll of foam confiscated from the basement of the nightclub after the fire was removed by the ATF but the testing done on that specific foam was never released to the public. Witnesses to the fire reported that once ignited, flames spread across the foam at approximately one foot per second.
A National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) investigation of the fire, using computer simulations with FDS and a mock-up of the stage area and dance floor, concluded that a fire sprinkler system would have contained the fire long enough to give everyone time to get out safely. However, because of the building's age (built in 1946) and size (4,484 square feet (404 m²)), many believed the Station to be exempt from sprinkler system requirements. In fact, the building had undergone an occupancy change when it was converted from a restaurant to a nightclub. This change dissolved its exemption from the law, a fact that West Warwick fire inspectors never noticed. On the night in question, the Station was legally required to have a sprinkler system but did not; outcry over the event has sparked calls for a national Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act but those efforts have so far stalled.
On December 9, 2003, brothers Jeffrey A. and Michael A. Derderian, the two owners of The Station nightclub, and Daniel M. Biechele, Great White's former road manager, were charged with 200 counts of involuntary manslaughter — two per death, because they were indicted under two separate theories of the crime: criminal-negligence manslaughter (resulting from a legal act in which the accused ignores the risks to others and someone is killed) and misdemeanor manslaughter (resulting from a petty crime that causes a death). Three of the four men pleaded not guilty to the charges. The Derderians also were fined $1.07 million for failing to carry workers' compensation insurance for their employees, four of whom died in the blaze.
The first criminal trial was against Great White's tour manager at the time, Daniel Michel Biechele // BEE-klee, 29, from Orlando, Florida. This trial was scheduled to start May 1, 2006, but Biechele, against his lawyers' advice, pled guilty to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter on February 7, 2006, in what he said was an effort to "bring peace, I want this to be over with."
On May 10, 2006, State Prosecutor Randall White asked to sentence Biechele to 10 years in prison, the maximum allowed under the plea bargain, citing the massive loss of life in The Station fire and the need to send a message. Speaking to the public for the first time since the fire, Biechele appeared remorseful during his sentencing. Choking back tears, he made a statement to the court and to the families of the victims.
Biechele's statement to the court
“ For three years, I've wanted to be able to speak to the people that were affected by this tragedy, but I know that there's nothing that I can say or do that will undo what happened that night.
Since the fire, I have wanted to tell the victims and their families how truly sorry I am for what happened that night and the part that I had in it. I never wanted anyone to be hurt in any way. I never imagined that anyone ever would be.
I know how this tragedy has devastated me, but I can only begin to understand what the people who lost loved ones have endured. I don't know that I'll ever forgive myself for what happened that night, so I can't expect anybody else to.
I can only pray that they understand that I would do anything to undo what happened that night and give them back their loved ones.
I'm so sorry for what I have done, and I don't want to cause anyone any more pain.
I will never forget that night, and I will never forget the people that were hurt by it.
I am so sorry.
|Daniel Michael Biechele|
October 8, 1976 |
New York state
|Charge(s)||100 counts of involuntary manslaughter|
Sentenced May 10, 2006
4 years to serve
11 years suspended
+ 3 years probation
|Status||Released March 19, 2008|
|Occupation||Flooring company accountant|
Superior Court Judge Francis J. Darigan sentenced Biechele to 15 years in prison, with four to serve and 11 years suspended, plus three years probation, for his role in the fire. Darigan remarked, "The greatest sentence that can be imposed on you has been imposed on you by yourself." Under this sentence, with good behavior, Biechele would be eligible for parole in September 2007. Judge Darigan deemed Biechele highly unlikely to re-offend, which was among the mitigating factors that led to his decision to impose this sentence.
The sentence drew mixed reactions in the courtroom. Many of the families believed that the punishment was just; others had hoped for a more severe sentence.
On September 4, 2007, some families of the fire's victims expressed their support for Biechele's parole.
Leland Hoisington, whose 28-year-old daughter, Abbie, was killed in the fire, told reporters, "I think they should not even bother with a hearing -- just let Biechele out... I just don't find him as guilty of anything." The state parole board received approximately 20 letters, the majority of which expressed their sympathy and support for Biechele, some going as far as to describe him as a "scapegoat" with limited responsibility.
Board chairwoman Lisa Holley told journalists of her surprise at the forgiving attitude of the families, saying, "I think the most overwhelming part of it for me was the depth of forgiveness of many of these families that have sustained such a loss."
Dave Kane and Joanne O'Neill, parents of youngest victim Nicholas O'Neill, released their letter to the board to reporters. "In the period following this tragedy, it was Mr. Biechele, alone, who stood up and admitted responsibility for his part in this horrible event... He apologized to the families of the victims and made no attempt to mitigate his guilt," the letter said.
Others pointed out that Biechele had sent handwritten letters to the families of each of the 100 victims and that he had a work release position in a local charity.
On September 19, 2007, the Rhode Island Parole Board announced that Biechele would be released in March 2008.
Biechele was released from prison on March 19, 2008. As reported by the Associated Press, he did not answer any questions and was quickly whisked away in a waiting car.
Following Biechele's trial, the Station's owners, Michael and Jeffrey Derderian, were scheduled to receive separate trials. However, on September 21, 2006, Superior Court Judge Francis J. Darigan announced that the brothers had changed their pleas from "not guilty" to "no contest," thereby avoiding a trial. Michael Derderian received 15 years in prison, with four to serve and 11 years suspended, plus three years probation—the same sentence as Biechele. Jeffrey Derderian received a 10-year suspended sentence, three years probation, and 500 hours of community service.
In a letter to the victims' families, Judge Darigan said that a trial "would only serve to further traumatize and victimize not only the loved ones of the deceased and the survivors of this fire, but the general public as well." He added that the difference in the brothers' sentences reflected their respective involvement with the purchase and installation of the flammable foam.
Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch objected strenuously to the plea bargain, saying that both brothers should have received jail time and that Michael Derderian should have received more time than Biechele.
In January 2008, the Parole Board decided to grant Michael Derderian an early release; he was scheduled to be released from prison in September 2009, but was granted his release in June 2009 for good behavior.
As of August 2008, nearly $175 million has been offered to the families of the victims of the fire by various defendants in settlement.
In February 2008, Providence television station WPRI-TV made an out-of-court settlement of US $30 million as a result of the claim that their video journalist was said to be obstructing escape and not helping people exit. WPRI-TV (owned by LIN Broadcasting) was filming a story on nightclub tragedies, and was there that night to film as part of their story.
Anheuser-Busch has offered $5 million, McLaughlin & Moran, Anheuser-Busch's distributor, has offered $16 million, Clear Channel Broadcasting has offered $22 million. Home Depot and insulation company Polar Industries has also made a settlement offer of $5 million.
Sealed Air Corporation agreed to pay $25 million as settlement. Sealed Air made soundproofing foam installed in the club. The State of Rhode Island and the town of West Warwick agreed to pay $10 million as settlement.
In September 2008 the band Great White offered $1 million in a settlement to survivors and victim's relatives, the maximum allowed under the band's insurance plan. Club owners Jeffrey and Michael Derderian have offered to settle for $813,000, which is to be covered by their insurance plan due to the pair having bankruptcy protection from lawsuits.
There are other named defendants who have not yet made a settlement offer including American Foam Corporation who sold the insulation to the Station Nightclub.