updated 9/20/2006 8:09:59 PM ET 2006-09-21T00:09:59

The owners of a nightclub where a 2003 fire killed 100 people will plead no contest to involuntary manslaughter charges, and only one will have to serve prison time, their lawyer said Wednesday. Victims’ relatives were outraged.

Kathleen Hagerty said brothers Jeffrey and Michael Derderian will enter the pleas more than 3 1/2 years after pyrotechnics ignited foam soundproofing as a 1980s heavy metal band started playing at The Station nightclub. She confirmed that Michael Derderian will serve 4 years in a minimum security prison, with eligibility for a work release program, and that Jeffrey Derderian will receive a suspended 10-year sentence.

Some relatives of those killed were furious to hear about the punishments, which they considered light.

“I can’t believe the attorney general is just going to stand by and say ‘OK’ to this,” said Diane Mattera, whose 29-year-old daughter, Tammy Mattera-Housa, died in the fire.

Hagerty confirmed the pleas after WJAR-TV of Providence reported on a letter Attorney General Patrick Lynch wrote to families of those killed to announce the plea deal.

Robert Bruyere, whose stepdaughter, Bonnie Hamelin, died in the fire, said he and his wife, Claire, learned about the plea on the news and had not yet heard from the attorney general.

Lynch “better hope I don’t see him in person, because I’ll be in jail,” he said.

Lynch’s spokesman Mike Healey did not immediately return phone messages left seeking comment. WJAR reported that Lynch was calling family members Wednesday to inform them of the pleas.

Jury selection already started
The plea comes as jury selection was under way for Michael Derderian’s criminal trial.

The fire on Feb. 20, 2003, at the wooden, single-story West Warwick nightclub began when pyrotechnics used by the band Great White ignited flammable soundproofing foam placed around the stage. A guitarist for the band was among those killed, and more than 200 people were injured.

Images and sounds of people scrambling to get out as dark smoke spread through the club were broadcast around the world. The footage was taken by a television cameraman at the club for a story on safety in public places being reported by Jeffrey Derderian, who then worked for a Providence TV station.

In May, former Great White tour manager Daniel Biechele was sentenced to four years in prison for igniting the pyrotechnics without the required permit. He pleaded guilty in February to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter.

The Derderians have each pleaded not guilty to 200 counts of involuntary manslaughter — two counts for each person killed under separate legal theories. A count of involuntary manslaughter in Rhode Island carries up to 30 years in prison.

One theory accuses them of committing a misdemeanor — installing flammable foam in violation of the state fire code — that led to the victims’ deaths; the other accuses them of operating their club with criminal negligence by maintaining unsafe conditions.

Prosecutors allege a pattern
Prosecutors say the Derderians showed a pattern of poor management and dangerous decisions, including installing the highly flammable polyurethane foam in violation of the state fire code and allowing bands to use pyrotechnics as part of their acts.

They also say the Derderians did several things that made it harder to evacuate the club: packing too many people into the building, having an exit door that swung the wrong way and failing to have illuminated exit signs.

The Derderians have said the band never had permission for the pyrotechnics, but band members contend they did.

The brothers’ lawyers have said they were never told the foam violated the fire code, and that reports by fire inspectors who surveyed the club make no mention of the material.

The Derderians and dozens of other defendants have been sued in federal court by fire survivors and relatives of those killed. The brothers, who have filed for bankruptcy, also have been fined $1.07 million for failing to carry the required workers’ compensation insurance — a penalty they are appealing.

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