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Survivors of R.I. club fire await settlement cash

As the six-year anniversary approaches next week, more than 300  survivors and relatives of those killed in the blaze are still waiting for their shares of a $176 million settlement.
Nightclub Fire
Linda Fisher suffered second- and third-degree burns to 30 percent of her body in the 2003 blaze, which killed 100 people and injured more than 200.Stew Milne / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Linda Fisher's medical expenses have grown to a half-million dollars in the six years since a fire tore through a Rhode Island nightclub, killing 100 concertgoers and injuring more than 200.

The other costs of the fire aren't as easily calculated: Strangers still gawk at the web of scars up and down her arms. Her reconstructed hands make it hard to grip a soda bottle or shuffle a deck of cards. She has fierce itching pangs that even now can make her cry.

As the six-year anniversary approaches next week, Fisher and more than 300 other survivors and relatives of those killed are waiting for their shares of a $176 million settlement intended to help cover mounting medical bills, with the largest payouts going to those most severely injured.

"There are people who have lost hair, their hands, ears, noses, fingers, arms, their jobs, their homes," said Fisher, 39, who spent three weeks in a drug-induced coma and suffered second- and third-degree burns on one-third of her body.

'Not enough money'
"Anyone who was in that building that night, for what they went through, they deserve a million dollars each," she added. "The worst injured? There's not enough money to give him."

The settlements resolve lawsuits arising from the Feb. 20, 2003, blaze at The Station nightclub in West Warwick, which began when pyrotechnics used as a stage prop by the 1980s rock band Great White ignited foam used as soundproofing around the stage.

The band's tour manager, Daniel Biechele, served less than two years of a four-year prison sentence; the club's two owners pleaded no contest to involuntary manslaughter charges — one will be released on parole this year while the other was spared jail time.

Dozens of companies and people who were sued after the fire, from club owners Jeffrey and Michael Derderian and members of the band to Anheuser-Busch and Clear Channel Broadcasting, agreed to settle over the last year and a half rather than risk the costs and uncertainty of a jury trial.

Lawyers won't disclose how much individual clients will receive but say payments will range from about $20,000 to several million dollars. The victims can either collect their money in lump sums or installmentss.

Fisher said her lawyer has told her she'll be eligible for about $1 million, but expects a large chunk of that to go toward attorneys fees and repaying the state for medical care. She intends to use her share for a down payment on a new house with her fiance and for a Labor Day weekend wedding celebration.

No fair way to compensate survivors
Fisher said there's no fair way to compensate the survivors for the severity or permanency of their injuries. And while she's relieved that lawsuits over the fire ended without a trial, she doesn't consider the total settlement sum at all eye-popping since it'll be divided among so many people.

"It's not winning the Powerball," said Fisher, who lost her job as an assistant toy store manager after the fire and now works part-time at a candle shop and collects a monthly Social Security check. "We're not going to buy new cars, we're not all going to buy mansions."

Gina Gauvin, a single mother of three who lost her right hand and all the fingers on her left one down to the knuckle, said she plans to use her share to buy a new house for her family. Her injuries have left her permanently disabled, and she's been struggling to make ends meet.

"I'll just be happy once I receive my settlement, to be able to not have to worry about asking for help from anybody and being self-supportive," Gauvin said.

Gathering planned at fire site
As they have done every year since the fire, scores of survivors and victims' relatives plan to gather at the fire site Sunday for an annual memorial service. It is decorated with crosses, photographs and other mementos, but a permanent memorial with a park, courtyard, garden and 100-string Aeolian harp is planned for the lot.

There are still a few legal hurdles before victims of the blaze will get their settlements.

The money is being distributed according to an intricate formula devised by a Duke University law professor, Francis McGovern, who has met with the survivors and relatives of those killed. The formula, which is awaiting a judge's approval, awards points based on a victim's age, education and income, and bases survivors' totals on their medical expenses — which range from zero to over $3 million.

Rhode Island Gov. Don Carcieri has proposed delaying paying the state's portion of the settlement — $10 million — until the next fiscal year because of an ongoing fiscal crisis. The cash-strapped town of West Warwick has asked for help to pay its own $10 million portion.

The entire process irked Diane Mattera, who said she felt like her late daughter, Tammy, 29, was reduced to an arbitrary mathematical calculus.

"I've always said from Day One, the money doesn't mean anything to us," Mattera said. "Her life meant more than points."