A new book is shedding new light on an 18-year-old tragedy, suggesting that the 2003 Station nightclub fire in West Warwick RI may have been the fault of more than just the owners of the nightclub who were convicted along with the band manager who set off the pyrotechnics that killed 100 people and injured 230 others.
In an interview with GBH News, Scott James, the author of Trial By Fire reveals documents and evidence he investigated that suggest a host of people in official positions were culpable in the tragedy and got off scot free, after prosecutors refused/failed to hold any public trial.
“This is a story about people being failed by the institutions that we believe are going to be there to protect us from a tragedy like this or in the aftermath help us.” James said “And that does not happen for the people who are the victims of this fire.”
The Station nightclub was a run-down roadhouse in the old New England mill town. The fire on February 20, 2003, destroyed the club - and remains the 4th deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history.
The tragedy happened during a set of the hard rock band, Great White. Within seconds of the band taking the stage, what began as a raucous good time, became a terrifying scene. Band manager Daniel Biechele set off pyrotechnics inside the club.
The fireworks ignited highly flammable and toxic soundproofing foam along the walls, and ceiling. There were no sprinklers.
“Look, when those fireworks were let off, people in the club initially thought it was part of the show,” James said. “They thought it was a special effect.”
James conducted the first interview with club owners Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, and combed through documents from U.S. Attorney Patrick Lynch’s office that pointed to other entities’ actions that possibly contributed to the fire including the West Warwick Fire inspector who approved the foam and added audience capacity, and executives at the soundproofing foam company.
During his investigation, James learned the prosecutors' office conducted mock trials to test their case.
“And in each of the three mock trials, the defendants, the nightclub owners, the Derdarians, were not convicted,” James said. “When I learned this, I realized, OK, wait a minute. From what I read in the newspaper and seen on TV, this is an open and shut case.”
James says he wrote his book because he was troubled by the rush to judgement against the two brothers who owned the club, Jeffrey, and Michael Derderian.
“The justice system, that justice failed in this case because a lot of people, a lot of other people, besides those who were accused, were culpable and they were never indicted and they were never pursued.”
James tries to tackle the question of whether this was an accident or a crime and points to a statement made condemning the Derderians while the tragedy was unfolding.
“The local police chief, while the incident is happening, gives an interview to the Associated Press,” James said. “He says that the nightclub owners, these two brothers, Michael and Jeffrey Derderian, quote, ‘most definitely will be indicted’”
Robin Petrarca was inside the club when the fire started. She escaped through an exit by the bar, but nine of her friends perished.
“Sure, there was a rush to judgment, because when any form of a tragedy happens, I think that people need to find something to focus on who to blame if somebody's fault,” she said.
GBH News did the first broadcast interview with WPRI-TV photographer Brian Butler, who was videotaping inside the club for a news story on public venue safety. Butler he was vilified after the fire and accused of not helping others escape the fire.
“You can look back and judge and you can look back and try to twist it in any way you want,” he said. “But what happened, happened the way it happened. And I can't change what I did.”
Butler said his instincts took over as soon as he saw the fire climb the walls through his viewfinder and he headed for the exit.
But at the doors, there was bottleneck of people pushing forward to get out and Butler was squeezed up against a woman Infront of him.
“She said, ‘Oh, I can't breathe, I can't breathe!’ I think I was pushing on her a little too hard, maybe she was getting crushed,” Butler said. “So I backed off and I said, ‘Relax, relax, we'll get out of here.’ And then the smoke alarm went off over my head. So the first thing I told myself was, ‘Don't panic.’”
Butler fled through the front door and says he tried to help others and did push out a panel on the exterior wall. Years later, Butler met a man who told him he escaped through it. It gives him some solace, but the horror of that night stays with him, along with an enormous amount of guilt.
WPRI-TV and the station’s then-owners LIN TV made an out-of-court settlement of $30 million dollars as a result of a claim that Butler was obstructing escape and not sufficiently helping people exit.
Jody King, a Rhode Island Quahogger grew up with the Derderians. His brother Tracy was a bouncer at the club and didn't make it out. And to this day doesn’t blame them for his brother’s death.
“It was an accident,” King said. ”Nobody got up in the morning and said it's going to be a good day for one hundred to die, no one.”
There was an investigation of the fire, and in 2003 a grand jury indicted Great White's manager manager Dan Biechele - who lit the pyrotechnics - and the Derderian brothers on 200 counts of involuntary manslaughter.
But a criminal or civil trial was never held. And no one had a chance to testify and share what they knew about events that led to the fire.
In 2006, Biechele pleaded guilty and the Derderians pleaded no contest. Biechele and Michael Derderian were sentenced to serve 4 years in jail and Jeffrey received a suspended sentence and 500 hours of community service.
At his sentencing Jeff Derderian apologized to the families.
“I tried like so many other people that night to do all I could, but the fire moved so fast. I was scared and I wished I did a better job.”
Jeff Derderian issued a statement to GBH News saying Scott James’ book is factually accurate.
The National Institute of Fire and Safety Training uses the fire video taken by Brian Butler for training purposes. Butler says it confirms how quickly a fire can get out of control.
“Seventy-two seconds to get out the door,” Butler said. “Seventy-two seconds. And in ninety it was full of the toxic black smoke.”
Survivors and families of victims received a $176 million dollar settlement. None of the others contacted would comment.
In addition to LIN TV, several other companies including American Foam Corporation, the State of Rhode Island and the town of West Warwick also paid millions of dollars in the settlement.
Survivor Robin Petrarca said all these years later, she holds dear the simple things in life.
“It truly makes you appreciate every day more,” she said. “And I think that that's the one thing that I know life is precious. And in the blink of an eye, things can change.”
In 2017, The Station Fire Memorial Park opened on the same property where the fire took place.
Disclosure: Jeff Derderian and Marilyn Schairer worked together at WPRI-TV in East Providence at the time of the fire and previously at ABC6 News where author Scott James, a three-time Emmy Award winning journalist was News Director and their boss.