This week marks 20 years since the horrific Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, Rhode Island, which killed 100 people and left 230 injured. It was one of the deadliest nightclub fires in the nation's history, and an event that has had lasting consequences for hundreds of families. Northeastern law professor and GBH legal analyst Daniel Medwed joined Morning Edition co-hosts Paris Alston and Jeremy Siegel to discuss the legal issues related to the catastrophe and how the law has evolved in response to it. This transcript has been lightly edited.
Paris Alston: So let's start with an overview. What happened that night?
Daniel Medwed: At around 11 p.m. on Feb., 20, 2003, the heavy metal band Great White took the stage at the Station nightclub. And to accompany their first song, their tour manager launched some pyrotechnics. Unfortunately, the soundproofing in the walls and ceilings surrounding the stage contained some flammable foam, acoustic foam, that immediately ignited and created what some fire scientists would call a flashover effect, which is basically, as far as they understand it, when every combustible item in the vicinity of an enclosed space basically goes ablaze, creating lots of flames and heat and smoke. It caused a stampede. And as you said at the outset, 100 people died in the aftermath of this event, making it the second-deadliest fire in New England nightclub history, surpassed only by the infamous Cocoanut Grove disaster back in 1942, right here in Boston.
Jeremy Siegel: This was devastating. And when you have this many people who were killed, there's obviously a lot of finger-pointing and discussion about who was at fault. How would you describe what went wrong here and who might legally or morally be deemed responsible for it?
Medwed: Well, that's exactly right. There was a lot of blame being bandied about to different people, and it seemed like three different parties deserve to shoulder a lot of the responsibility. First and foremost, there was the tour manager, Daniel Biechele, who, after all, ignited those pyrotechnics. They were for gerbs, which are cylindrical devices that contain controlled sprays of sparks. There's a little bit of a dispute about whether he had authorization from the nightclub to do this, but he was certainly one of the people who shouldered a lot of the blame. Second, there were the nightclub owners, the Derderians, two brothers who purchased it back in 2000.
Now, even though there were four exits in the facility, a lot of people died during the stampede because of a bottleneck in a narrow space near the front door. It made sense that a lot of people were trying to exit through the entrance where they had come from, right? In addition, this was aggravated by the fact that it had a maximum occupancy of 404 people and there were 462 people in the venue that night. Third, and finally, there were many perceived breakdowns in the fire safety inspection protocol process. And the city of West Warwick, the state of Rhode Island, also shouldered part of the blame here.
"There were many perceived breakdowns in the fire safety inspection protocol process. And the city of West Warwick, the state of Rhode Island, also shouldered part of the blame here."-GBH News Legal Analyst Daniel Medwed
Alston: Daniel, you just mentioned that there were breakdowns in the safety inspections. What exactly happened there?
Medwed: On the one hand, there was the absence of an automatic fire sprinkler. So when this building was constructed back in 1946, it was designed as a restaurant. And under Rhode Island Fire Code at the time, a restaurant of that size did not require fire sprinklers. However, when it was converted decades later into a nightclub, that exemption should have disappeared and sprinklers should have been installed. A really fatal oversight here.
On the other hand, there was the problem of that flammable acoustic foam that I mentioned earlier. The West Warwick fire marshal had conducted two fire inspections of the Station nightclub in the months preceding this event. During the first inspection, nine minor code violations were found. They were apparently remedied. And the second time around, the nightclub got a clean bill of health. But the fire marshal never detected the presence of this foam, which was actually against code at the time.
Siegel: So what ended up happening legally here? Did anyone face criminal charges?
Medwed: Yes. The tour manager and the Derderian brothers, who owned the Station, all faced criminal manslaughter charges based on two separate theories. One was that they had engaged in negligence, that their behavior was a gross departure, an extreme departure, from what a reasonable tour manager or nightclub owner would have done in this situation. The other theory was something called misdemeanor manslaughter, which holds that if you commit a petty crime and someone dies, you're on the hook for the homicide, regardless of whether you intended it, or was reckless, or anything.
All three men ultimately pled guilty. Biechele went first and he received a sentence of four years in prison, 11 years of a suspended sentence and three years of probation. Now, there was some outcry from people who felt like this was quite lenient. But by all accounts, Biechele was incredibly contrite and remorseful, just crushed by these events. And that was a factor, a mitigating factor, in his sentence. One of the owners, one of the Derderians, got the same exact sentence through his guilty plea. And the other brother, who is considered far less culpable, got 500 hours of community service.
Alston: So, Daniel, all of this is making me think about the Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland, California, in 2016. I know, Jeremy, you were there when that happened, right?
Siegel: Yeah, I actually covered the case that ended up in an acquittal and a mistrial for the people charged with manslaughter in it.
Alston: Right. And we know there were some code violations involved with that fire. And Daniel, this was the deadliest building fire in the U.S. since the one at the Station nightclub. Which makes me wonder how those fire code and safety regulations changed, or didn't, in response to this.
Medwed: Well, that's a great question. Obviously, these events continue to happen. So there's something beyond the fire code that's probably a problem here. But there were some positive developments in the aftermath of the Station tragedy, and here are a few of them: Immediately afterwards, the governor of Rhode Island issued a moratorium on the use of pyrotechnics in small venues. There also was a movement that began to gain traction to create fire sprinkler laws across the country. In addition, the organization that creates guidelines for fire safety, it's called the National Fire Protection Association, revised their guidelines and created better guidelines. So there were some good developments as a result of this.