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R.I. club owners charged in deadly fire

Involuntary manslaughter charges were filed Tuesday against the owners of the Rhode Island nightclub where 100 people were killed in a fire last February.  The band's tour manager also faces charges.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The owners of the nightclub where 100 people were killed in a fire in February were indicted on involuntary manslaughter charges Tuesday along with the tour manager for the heavy metal band whose pyrotechnics ignited the blaze.

Club owners Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, and Great White tour manager Dan Biechele, were each charged with 200 counts of involuntary manslaughter — two for each death.

Attorney General Patrick Lynch said the men were charged with two types of manslaughter: one for "gross negligence," the other for committing a misdemeanor, such as a fire code violation, that led to a death.

Lynch said Biechele was charged under both standards because he lit the stage fireworks. In the case of the owners, the "gross negligence" applies to how they maintained the club over several years, he said. The other charges covered their installation and maintenance of the club's flammable soundproofing foam that caused the blaze to spread.

Involuntary manslaughter carries up to 30 years in prison.

'They are not criminals'
All three pleaded not guilty Tuesday, and they were released after posting bail. Bail for the club owners was set at $5,000 cash, while bail for Biechele was set at $10,000 cash.

should not be charged with any crime,” said Jeffrey Pine, attorney for Jeffrey Derderian.

“While we are deeply sympathetic to the victims, the fact remains that Dan Biechele is not guilty of the charges brought in this case,” said Biechele’s attorney, Tom Briody. “He could not have known of the dangerous conditions that existed inside The Station.”

Lynch said he wished he could change the timing of the announcement.

"The suffering of the victims and survivors will be intensified by having to go through the holidays without their loved ones," he said.

The indictment marks the first criminal charges to result from the Feb. 20 fire at The Station nightclub. About 200 people were injured in what was one of the deadliest nightclub fires in the nation’s history.

TV camera caught fire's cause
The fire started after the pyrotechnics were shot off just seconds into Great White’s first song, quickly igniting the highly flammable foam that had been placed around the stage as soundproofing. Thick smoke quickly spread through the club and within minutes, the one-story, wooden building was engulfed in flames, trapping clubgoers as they rushed toward the same exit.

The cause of the fire was known almost immediately and the victims’ final moments were captured by a local television cameraman who was gathering footage for a story on safety in public places.

While the band maintained it received permission to set off the fireworks, the club owners insisted permission was never given.

Members of Great White, who have been named in several civil suits, were not charged by the grand jury. Great White was a popular band during the 1980s heavy metal era, with hits such as “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” and “Rock Me.” The band’s guitarist, Ty Longley, was among those killed the fire.

Wide impact in a small town
The fire in the blue-collar community of West Warwick, about 12 miles south of Providence, seemed to touch everyone in this small state.

“They say there are six degrees of separation in this world. In Rhode Island, there’s a degree and a half,” Lynch said after the blaze. “The pain rips through this community quicker than any other.”

Authorities investigated the blaze for more than nine months, picking through the charred remains of the site for evidence and interviewing witnesses.

They seized computers, documents, club records and appointment books from band members and the club’s owners.

Investigators also took inspection reports from the town and receipts from a foam manufacturer and collected dozens of items from the site of the fire, including club doors, wiring, spray paint and foam samples.

Fire code changes
In the wake of the fire, Gov. Don Carcieri called for emergency inspections of all public buildings similar to The Station nightclub, and the state formed a commission to investigate the blaze. State lawmakers passed stringent new fire-safety standards, including stricter rules on sprinkler requirements for older buildings.

The blaze also led other states to propose tougher fire regulations for nightclubs and prompted finger-pointing among local officials. Fire and building inspection reports released by the town of West Warwick never mention the foam that surrounded the stage, and the club had passed its last inspection — two months before the fire.

Jeffrey Derderian was a longtime television reporter in Rhode Island and Boston, and is known to many in the region. He was at the club during the night of the fire.

Great White recently wrapped up a five-month tour to raise money for fire victims. The band raised just under $64,000, but its tour was criticized by family members of victims who blamed the band for the fire and said the tour was self-serving.