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DEADLY DECISIONS | BEHIND THE RHODE ISLAND NIGHTCLUB FIRE
Deception, missteps sparked a tragedy
First of two parts WEST WARWICK, R.I. - The stage door exit, swathed from top to bottom in flammable gray foam, was a problem. And with daylight streaming through the garden windows of the rock 'n' roll roadhouse on Cowesett Avenue, the town's inspector spotted it easily. The door swung inward, he said, a clear violation of a fire code crafted to ensure that patrons running from flames can swiftly escape. If the nightclub, The Station, wanted to keep its liquor license, the inspector ruled last November, the door had to be fixed. Not a word about the foam. It was a familiar warning - and oversight. Inspectors had raised red flags about the offending door the year before and the year before that. Each time, the foam, on the door and across the stage wall, went unmentioned. Each time, the club satisfied official concern with a strikingly cavalier solution. The Station's manager simply took the door off its hinges, stowed it in a nearby dressing room, and waited for approval when the inspector returned. Then, the manager said, he'd put the offending door back up. ''There's a back door that I used to get hit on all the time, but I knew we weren't supposed to have it,'' nightclub manager Kevin J. Beese Sr. said. ''...The door would definitely go back up.'' This willful violation of the fire code at The Station is among several findings of a two-month Globe investigation into the Feb. 20 fire, which killed 100, injured nearly 200, and has drawn the attention of national forensic scientists who are studying the fire's deadly physics, and state investigators who are weighing criminal liability. In its brazenness and banality, the violation is also emblematic of the kind of deadly decisions that fueled The Station firestorm, making the unthinkable seem, in retrospect, almost inevitable. With a grand jury still at work, key figures ordered into silence by protective lawyers, and charges and countercharges over the inferno's origin still flying, this much is clear: The road to one of the nation's deadliest nightclub fires was marked not so much by great acts of malfeasance but by poor judgments, missed opportunities, administrative sloppiness, and shabby acts of self-interest.
Scene inside The Station Among the Globe findings:
First of two parts
WEST WARWICK, R.I. - The stage door exit, swathed from top to bottom in flammable gray foam, was a problem. And with daylight streaming through the garden windows of the rock 'n' roll roadhouse on Cowesett Avenue, the town's inspector spotted it easily.
The door swung inward, he said, a clear violation of a fire code crafted to ensure that patrons running from flames can swiftly escape.
If the nightclub, The Station, wanted to keep its liquor license, the inspector ruled last November, the door had to be fixed.
Not a word about the foam.
It was a familiar warning - and oversight. Inspectors had raised red flags about the offending door the year before and the year before that. Each time, the foam, on the door and across the stage wall, went unmentioned. Each time, the club satisfied official concern with a strikingly cavalier solution.
The Station's manager simply took the door off its hinges, stowed it in a nearby dressing room, and waited for approval when the inspector returned. Then, the manager said, he'd put the offending door back up.
''There's a back door that I used to get hit on all the time, but I knew we weren't supposed to have it,'' nightclub manager Kevin J. Beese Sr. said. ''...The door would definitely go back up.''
This willful violation of the fire code at The Station is among several findings of a two-month Globe investigation into the Feb. 20 fire, which killed 100, injured nearly 200, and has drawn the attention of national forensic scientists who are studying the fire's deadly physics, and state investigators who are weighing criminal liability.
In its brazenness and banality, the violation is also emblematic of the kind of deadly decisions that fueled The Station firestorm, making the unthinkable seem, in retrospect, almost inevitable.
With a grand jury still at work, key figures ordered into silence by protective lawyers, and charges and countercharges over the inferno's origin still flying, this much is clear: The road to one of the nation's deadliest nightclub fires was marked not so much by great acts of malfeasance but by poor judgments, missed opportunities, administrative sloppiness, and shabby acts of self-interest.
Scene inside The Station
Among the Globe findings:
As for The Station's disobedience of a town order about the stage door, that was apparently founded in a desire to obey what it saw as Town Hall's supreme commandment: Keep the noise down.
West Warwick officials had made it plain since March 2000, when the Derderians purchased the club, that their license depended on their ability to get along with a neighborhood of simple homes on a rise behind the nightclub, where a commercial district of strip malls, fast-food joints, and auto shops fades into suburbia.
The neighbors wanted the club to lower the volume. The polyurethane packing foam the new owners installed on The Station's walls was meant to do just that. The stage door that caught the inspector's eye - which created a double-door at the exit nearest the neighbors - was also a sound-tamping device.
''I'd leave [the door] off for a while,'' Beese, 38, said in an interview. ''But when I know we've got these bands that are coming in, then I'd have the door back on just because of the noise.''
Jeffrey Derderian's attorney, Jeffrey B. Pine, said the club owner was unaware that the door had been put back up after the inspector demanded its removal.
Kathleen M. Hagerty, Michael Derderian's attorney, did not respond to questions posed by the Globe but, in an interview, said she concurs with Pine's responses.
Beese said the brothers knew about the offending door. And he maintained that it did not impede anyone from leaving The Station as fire raced through the building.
''Obviously, I thought about this, because I told my guys, `No matter what, make sure that door gets open anytime you're back there. Whoever's back there, make sure that door's the first door open if there's ever a problem,' '' he said.
Just after 11 p.m. on Feb. 20, there was a problem.
It began inches from the club's stage exit as fire tore through the combustible foam that the Derderians believed would protect their neighbors from the roar of drums and guitars, and would keep their license beyond the reach of Town Hall.
The noise problem
West Warwick's premier live-music venue, a rambling, low-slung structure at 211 Cowesett Avenue, had been a gathering place since the 1950s, when it was home to the Wheel, a barroom where World War II Navy veterans would knock back beers. As the traffic out front changed from gas guzzlers with fins and heavy chrome to four-cylinder cars wrought by the energy crisis of the 1970s, the wood-frame facility underwent a metamorphosis, too.
In different incarnations it was called Cedar Acres, the Red Fox, Tammany Hall, Papa Brillo's, Glenn's Pub, Cracker Jacks, and the Filling Station. It hosted country-and-western bands, standup comics, and motorcycle gangs. It served up hamburgers, pasta by the pound, and lobster.
By early 2000, when two entrepreneurs, Michael and Jeffrey Derderian, answered a newspaper ad to buy the business, its main course was a beer-soaked blend of smoky rock 'n' roll. For years, neighbors had registered their displeasure with the place. And police took frequent notice. Cars blocked driveways and clogged nearby residential streets. Beer bottles littered lawns. Fire officials expressed ''a grave concern'' about overcrowding. They had grown weary of complaints about the rowdy crowd that spilled into the parking lot and the shingle-rattling music that roared inside.
Jeffrey Derderian, then a Boston television news reporter, and his brother Michael, who sold insurance and traded stocks, showed up at West Warwick Town Hall well dressed, well spoken, and carrying a promise that everyone wanted to hear. On the day the club's liquor license was transferred to them, March 21, 2000, the brothers promised to monitor the club's sound with a decibel meter.
''The way we would conduct ourselves is to always err on the side of caution,'' Jeffrey Derderian told the Town Council. ''We're not interested in jeopardizing public safety or anything jeopardizing the neighborhood.''
The brothers planned to spruce up the place. They redid the bathrooms. They replaced stools and tables. They painted. But after paying about $180,000 for the business and facing $3,600-a-month rent payments to the building's owner, the Derderians wanted to make some money.
Sometimes they promised bands with drawing power that they could provide an audience of 550, well above the club's legal capacity of 404. The brothers invested in a $65,000 state-of-the-art sound system, and The Station became known around the area as the place to feel the thump of rock 'n' roll.
Sometimes that thump was accompanied by the flash of pyrotechnics, which several metal bands used to punctuate their acts. All the earlier displays proved harmless; none of them was legal.
To legally set off fireworks in Rhode Island, a pyrotechnician needs a license from the state fire marshal's office and a local permit. No one had sought a pyrotechnics permit for The Station between 2000 and 2003, town records state.
Sometimes, pyrotechnics were used inside The Station on nights the Derderians hired West Warwick fire details to help cope with big crowds.
Rev Tyler, a guitarist for the now-defunct band, Lovin' Kry, said his band used pyrotechnics at The Station, playing there 10 or 15 times between 1998 and April 27, 2000. At the group's last appearance, Tyler recalled, two firefighters on duty complimented the band on its ''great show.'' Though the firefighters asked the group's singer about the type of pyrotechnics used - they were much the same as the ones Great White would use - they didn't express any concern, Tyler said.
Yet of all the ways the Derderians tried to upgrade the club, the most important centered on how to hold down the noise. The police chief warned Michael Derderian that the club's license was in jeopardy unless the noise was abated. ''He is going to speak to the neighbors to work on issues,'' Chief Peter T. Brousseau said in a memo two months after the Derderians took over at The Station.
The town's warning spooked the club's owners, said Paul M. Vanner, the club's stage manager and the man at the controls of its sound system.
''They were panicking because they just kept coming out and saying: `The volume. The volume. You got to watch the volume.' . . . And it's like: `Hey, it's a rock 'n' roll organization. You've got to have some thump and pump here,' '' Vanner said in an interview. ''And they got to the point where it was like, `Paul, turn it down, or you're fired!' ''
Vanner, of East Providence, had seen this problem before. He had been the sound man at a club called Faces in Riverside, R.I., in the mid-1980s. Vanner said that when the owner there was confronted with neighbors' complaints, she knocked on doors, tried to make friends, and hired a contractor to blow soundproofing into the walls. Vanner said the owner also bought air conditioners for those living closest to the club. As the music blared on hot summer nights, neighbors could keep their windows closed. In Riverside, the mollifying tactics worked.
The Derderians apparently took Vanner's fence-mending suggestion to heart. ''Our license is depending on this, Paul,'' Vanner remembered Michael Derderian telling him.
Appeasing the neighbors
Barry H. Warner and his wife, Barbara, lived nearest The Station, in a home perched on a rise within 100 feet of the club's back wall. Tormented by the window-rattling music from inside the club and the boisterous crowds outside, Barry Warner had been lodging late-night complaints with police about his noisy neighbor since 1998. He later told police he had ''suffered for a prolonged period of time.''
So in the spring of 2000, when one of the new owners of the club knocked on Warner's door to offer to buy him an air-conditioner, Warner countered with a sound-muffling suggestion of his own.
Warner told Derderian that he sold packaging foam and ''informed the Derderians that they could purchase the foam and use it as a form of sound-absorbing material,'' West Warwick Detective Roland J. Coutu said in an affidavit.
Warner, at the time, had been a salesman for 24 years at American Foam Corp., a Johnston, R.I., company that sold packaging foam - not acoustic soundproofing. The company sold a flame-retardant variety for roughly twice the $575 the Derderians paid for 25 sheets of the untreated stuff, a total of about 545 square feet.
Pine, Jeffrey Derderian's lawyer, said Warner did not offer them a flame-retardant brand of foam. Warner, 48, and his attorney, Ronald Langlois of Providence, declined the Globe's requests for interviews.
Pine said the club owners accepted what Warner offered, and that they added it to foam already on some walls in the club.
The installation of the foam put the incendiary equivalent of about 13 gallons of gasoline on the walls of the wood-frame building, according to calculations by Michael O'Shaughnessey, a forensic consultant and fire specialist with North Eastern Technical Services of Fall River.
''It's difficult to overstate the danger that came with hanging that foam,'' said O'Shaughnessey, who studied the fire for the Globe. ''Once it was up, it could have been from a match or a lit cigarette, but it was only a matter of time before disaster would strike.''
Pine said the Derderians personally installed the foam with the help of a club employee; Beese said he believes that employee was his predecessor as club manager, Tim Arnold. Arnold declined numerous requests for comment. Beese, then a club bartender, said the foam seemed to work.
''Paulie [Vanner] cranked up the sound and stuff, and I went outside, and I was like, `Ah, that's not bad.' It really did it. It really did it,'' Beese said. ''And I never thought, you know, `Is this stuff fire-proof?' It was a noise problem that needed to be quelled.''
The Derderians told local officials, during a Town Council meeting, that they had installed soundproofing foam, Pine said. What they said could not be confirmed because the tape of that portion of the June 2000 meeting is blank.
Within several months the complaints ebbed, and the club's conditional entertainment license was extended. Town councilors praised the brothers for their success in appeasing neighbors. And in a community struggling to attract economic development, they assured the Derderians their crackdown was not personal.
''We're not antibusiness,'' one of the councilors assured them. ''We're with you. Keep on operating the way it is. You're trying to do the right thing.''
So convinced were the club owners that their noise problems were behind them that when the batteries in the club's decibel meter later went dead, no one bothered to replace them.
And at the Derderians' invitation, Warner stopped by to see the quieter club for himself.
If the Derderians believed the foam would be the answer to their problems, they were tragically mistaken.
Its installation violated fire and building codes that ban the use of highly flammable material inside public places. Nightclub owners must notify local officials before they install decorative or acoustic material and provide manufacturer's information that shows how intensely it burns.
With no information on file at Town Hall, inspectors who visited the club should have asked the owners to produce the manufacturer's rating, according to the state fire code. If the club owners refused or were unable to get it from the manufacturer, the inspectors should have demanded that the foam be removed.
Untreated polyurethane foam is highly flammable, emitting a thick, black, toxic smoke. If the Derderians were unaware of its hazards when they put it on their club walls in 2000, Jeffrey Derderian knew about the dangers of similar products a year later. In February 2001, as a reporter for Boston's WHDH-TV, he told viewers, ''Fire safety experts call this stuff solid gasoline.''
In four inspections over three years, town officials either missed or ignored the charcoal-gray egg-crate foam glued up around the stage and down one rear wall. The Station's last two fire inspections were handled by Larocque, the town's main fire inspector.
Larocque declined repeated requests for interviews. His attorney, Marc DeSisto, declined comment, citing pending litigation.
Raised in West Warwick, Larocque, 47, was one of four children in a close-knit, middle-class family. Described as a family man and a hard-driving Little League coach, he is a father of three who spent his spare time buying, renovating, and renting properties in town. Larocque joined the fire department when he was just 21 and became battalion chief in 1994.
In the barrooms and restaurants of West Warwick, Larocque had a reputation as a tough inspector. But his inspection reports in recent years reveal a surprising leniency toward several businesses, which he repeatedly recommended for liquor license renewals, even after citing them for recurring violations.
Larocque's three most recent inspections of the Portugese-American Sports Club - a ramshackle bar with function rooms that often host political fund-raisers - found a basement fire extinguisher not mounted and no fire extinguishing system over the stoves. Rhode Island's fire code requires that most commercial kitchens have self-activated fire extinguishing systems. The same violation occurred repeatedly at Evelyn's Villa, a banquet facility owned by a former councilman. Larcoque recommended three liquor license renewals at Evelyn's, while citing the facility for the outdated kitchen system.
''The system we had was sufficient but out of code, and they didn't keep coming back and saying, `Hey, you've got to change it. You've got to change it,' '' said Steve Simas, whose father owns the restaurant. He said his family had balked at the $3,500 cost of replacing the system until February.
Some other inspection reports - including several handled by Larocque - remain completely blank, failing to detail the condition of a bar or restaurant at all. Or they were simply marked, ''All OK.''
West Warwick assistant town solicitor Mark D. Tourgee would not discuss the inspection process or The Station fire. But he said he doesn't believe the town should be held liable because it handled inspections correctly and the fire inspector - though employed by the town - is licensed by the state.
''We don't feel that there's any liability on the town for what unfortunately transpired there that night,'' Tourgee said.
As one of about 224 town inspectors certified as assistant deputy state fire marshals, Larocque had to interpret a confusing quilt of fire codes layered with modern revisions and loopholes for preexisting buildings. Rhode Island's fire code has been altered so often since it became effective in 1974 that local fire inspectors must juggle a dozen books to enforce inspections.
If The Station were being built today, it would need sprinklers and a fire alarm system linked to the fire station - in addition to several sizable exits, working exit doors with panic bars, and clear pathways to the exits.
But older buildings such as The Station are generally exempt from those more rigorous provisions. And confusion about those exemptions abounds, said William Howe, the chief of inspections in the state fire marshal's office.
''You get to the point where it's almost impossible to tell . . . exactly what they had to comply with,'' Howe recently told a legislative commission on fire safety.
The commission last week recommended that the code be toughened and clarified.
The most important dispute surrounding The Station is whether it needed sprinklers under the state building code. State Building Commissioner Daniel R. DeDentro recently told the legislative commission that, although the building was old enough to be exempt, it should have had sprinklers installed after it was converted from a restaurant to a nightclub. But Wolfgang Bauer, the town manager, insisted that The Station has always been licensed as a restaurant - despite its increasing renown as a nightclub and an occupancy level that was increased to handle standing-room-only concert crowds. He said the mere approval of an entertainment license would not necessarily trigger a review of whether sprinklers were required.
''You look at it from an entertainment license, and you say, `Yeah, it's no problem having entertainment there for a night,' and then it goes away,'' Bauer said.
West Warwick fire officials were even confused about their own standards. Fire Chief Charles Hall announced soon after the fire that The Station had a legal capacity of 300. Weeks later, memos were found in the fire station showing that the occupany limit had been increased even before the Derderians bought the club, allowing a crowd of 404 when tables, chairs, pool tables, and video games were relocated. There is no evidence that, after the occupancy limit was raised, inspectors remeasured exits to be sure they could handle the larger crowd.
Even at the higher capacity, Bauer believed, the club conformed on paper to the fire code. What played out in reality was another story.
On the night of the fire, one of the exits was obstructed, and one - in the kitchen - proved useless, except to club employees. The crowd of more than 300 flooded the front door, creating, within seconds, a deadly bottleneck.
An economic pinch
The Station under Derderian management had two distinct rhythms. During the week, regular customers drifted in for $2.75 drafts of Budweiser, for a game of darts, or to shoot some pool.
But on weekends, the place rocked with the likes of John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band, Quiet Riot, 10,000 Maniacs, or local heavy-metal favorites that could test the limits of the prime directive that the Derderians posted for sound engineers: Loud bands would not be invited back.
The brothers had contrasting styles, employees agreed. Jeffrey, 36, was regarded as the more formal of the two, the matter-of-fact businessman who would take the stage to promote upcoming acts in his baritone announcer's voice. Michael, 42, was more of a schmoozer, more inclined to have a late-night cocktail with the staff or lead them on an early-morning road trip for a few hours of gambling at Foxwoods, the Connecticut casino just a short drive away.
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the ensuing lethargic economy, business dropped. Bartender Julie A. Mellini, who usually worked two nights a week, was down to one. ''It had slowed down,'' she said.
The Derderians were feeling the economic pinch. In divorce papers filed in Family Court, Michael Derderian said he was selling stock last June to meet ''various margin calls as well as household expenses.'' His estranged wife wanted the nightclub sold so she could make ends meet. She said her husband had told her the nightclub had been operating at a loss, the divorce records state.
Still, the Derderian brothers - who alternated weekend work at the club - plugged away. They put up new televisions for Sunday night football. ''It didn't really work out,'' Beese said.
They hosted karaoke nights. They experimented briefly with an evening of acoustic music. They tried a night of sumo wrestling in which patrons would don heavily padded suits before entering the ring for clumsy battle. It was a flop.
Rock 'n' roll was The Station's currency. But it was not bringing in enough money. The Derderians began to look harder for places to save money.
They let their contract with the company that checked their fire alarm lapse, failing to pay $120 for an annual inspection. They paid their bartenders under the table, club employees said, and never provided workers' compensation insurance.
When Jeffrey Derderian signed a $5,000 contract on Dec. 20, 2002, to bring Great White to the club, there was a buzz on Cowesett Avenue that a national act was headed for West Warwick. ''It was a big deal because we hadn't done many nationals recently,'' Vanner said.
The Derderians promoted the show heavily. Apparently tired of long hours and dwindling returns, they were simultaneously seeking to sell the place. Jeff wanted to spend more time with his family. Michael was dabbling in other business ventures, promoting concerts and trying to open a car wash.
And a successful show could hardly hurt negotiations between prospective buyers and two brothers who had had enough of running a rock club.
If Great White stirred anticipation and appreciation among some hardbitten rock 'n' roll fans, their music was an acquired taste. A 1991 Globe review dubbed the group ''a band without a clue.''
The band's signature song, a cover of Ian Hunter's ''Once Bitten, Twice Shy,'' was featured on a 1989 album that sold more than 2 million copies and earned the group a Grammy nomination. But the group's ''hair metal'' heyday was a distant memory by the time the group embarked on its 2003 tour. Great White had traded large arenas for small, smoky barrooms.
The group's hotel of choice, when there was one at all, was more likely a Motel Six than the Marriott. Typically, the members slept on the tour bus and rented a single room in which to shower and freshen up before concerts.
But lead singer Jack Russell, who founded the band in Southern California in 1978, could still belt out hell-raising lyrics about love and lust, betrayal and redemption. The graying rock 'n' roll rebel even found fans born during the Reagan administration.
Two DJs at Nichols College in Dudley, Mass., Michael R. Ricardi and James C. Gahan IV, were big fans. They had seen Russell perform solo last year at Leominster's Club Liquid and were eager to see him back fronting his old group.
From their college dorm rooms, the hosts of WNRC's ''Jim and Mikey's Power Hour'' pressed Great White's manager for an interview and were mildly surprised when it was granted.
''They've been out of their prime for like 10 years now, so they don't really get interview requests that much anymore,'' Ricardi, 19, said. ''So maybe they're thinking, `Hey, we'll take anything we can get.' ''
On Thursday, Feb. 20, Ricardi and 21-year-old Gahan - two buddies linked by mutual passion for heavy-metal music - drove south for West Warwick and a darkened nightclub where a white tour bus purred out front.
By 7 p.m., they were seated on the custom coach across from Russell, who wore a bandana and a world-weary smile.
''I don't do this to make money,'' Russell told his two young fans, according to a videotape of the interview supplied to the Globe. ''I don't need the money right now. I do this because I love playing for people. I love going out there and see people smile, you know? And have a good time and enjoy themselves and forget the crappiness of the world around them right now, you know?''
After the interview, Ricardi and Gahan walked back into The Station, accepting the free passes that the band had given them. Gahan had an early class the next morning, but the hosts of WNRC's rock show decided to stay for Great White.
As patrons began to fill the old roadhouse, and opening acts took the stage, The Station began to resonate with the thump and pump of rock `n' roll.
With eyes on the stage, no one focused on flammable foam, or flawed exits, or the empty fire-extinguisher wall bracket.
Then, just after 11 p.m. on Feb. 20, the lights went down. And as electric guitars wailed, a bright fountain of fireworks erupted on the old roadhouse's well-padded stage.
[ Read Part two ]
This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 6/8/2003.