WEST WARWICK, R.I. - The onstage pyrotechnic display that sparked a deadly fire inside a nightclub Thursday night was not approved by state or local officials, and would never have been allowed if permission had been sought, investigators said yesterday.
The band Great White launched the show in the squat one-story building, igniting a fire that killed at least 96 people. Investigators now believe The Station club was filled over capacity - about 50 more than its limit of 300.
But state and federal investigators are focusing their probe on the unlicensed pyrotechnics. They are considering charges against the building’s owners, the club’s owners, and the band itself.
“Any pyrotechnics in the interior of a combustible building would make it unsafe,” said West Warwick Fire Chief Charles Hall. “Absolutely, it would have been denied.”
An individual who sets off pyrotechnics needs a license from the state Fire Marshal, which requires a psychological test and a criminal background check. The display also requires a local permit from West Warwick town hall, and the posting of $1 million bond.
Great White sought neither state nor local approval, officials said.
“Nothing was ever presented to the town,” said town clerk David Clayton. “The town had no knowledge.”
Managers at several other clubs where Great White had recently appeared said that the band had used pyrotechnics without permission from the club management. Domenic Santana, owner of the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J., said, without warning, the band set off a show under his 12-foot ceilings that endangered patrons last Friday night.
If Great White had sought the proper approval in West Warwick, it would never have been granted, the fire chief said. The Station was a one-story wooden building, which had drop ceilings 8 1/2 to 9 feet tall, and combustible materials like paneling and soundproofing. The club had a fire alarm but no sprinkers, since it was built in the 1950s or 1960s - before a 1976 change in the fire code mandated sprinklers, said Hall.
Eyewitnesses described a fast-moving inferno, prompting questions about about the role of a flammable sound proofing foam installed in the club in recent years.
Investigators said that, though the club’s electricity had been cut by the fire, exit lights were restored by a backup generator; still, they suspect, intense smoke may have prevented victims from seeing the exit signs.
The club was up to code, officials said, having just passed a fire inspection and renewed its liquor license in December. One club patron said there had been a fire at The Station last fall that was quickly doused, but the fire chief had no record of any serious fires at the venue in years, and it was not clear what caused the previous fire.
With investigators pursuing criminal charges, the band and club and building owners appeared to deflect responsibility.
Great White lead singer Jack Russell said early yesterday morning that his band always sought permission to use pyrotechnics onstage. The club owners, Michael and Jeffrey Derderian, issued a statement saying they were not informed of the band’s plans for the pyrotechnic show. And a lawyer for the building owner, Warwick-based Triton Realty Limited Partnership, said that though it was cooperating with the investigation, “since we had no role in running the establishment known as `The Station,’ nor in the show by Great White, we currently are not in possession of any details about the fire, or the events that immediately preceded the fire.”
Other night club owners and band members criticized Great White’s pyrotechnics displays. Managers at the Pinellas Park Expo Center in Florida, and the Crocodile Rock Cafe in Allentown, Pa., said the band set off the fireworks without permission from the establishments.
Santana said he complained to the band’s road manager Dan Biechele and claimed that the manager reacted by telling him to relax. “This is part of the show, dude. Back off,” he claimed that Biechele responded.
Biechele declined to speak to a reporter by phone yesterday.
Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch would not speculate on the prosecution, but said that the charge most often pursued in similar cases across the country is involuntary manslaughter.
The property is owned by Triton Realty, while the club itself is owned by Derco LLC, whose managers are Michael and Jeffrey Derderian.
The Derderians had been trying to sell the club. Last month, they pursued the transfer of their liquor license to another entity, but backed off when the deal fell through, Clayton said. On Wednesday, a day before the blaze, another duo - Michael O’Connor and Daniel Gormley - filed papers in the Rhode Island Secretary of State’s office to take over ownership of the club. O’Connor said yesterday that he had been negotiating with the Derderians for about three weeks on the purchase. He was even in the club Thursday night to examine it, but left a half-hour before the fire broke out.
“For some reason I left early,” said O’Connor. “. . . And I got home and it was a shock. . . . It really makes you think.”
O’Connor, who is involved in real estate and broadband ventures in Rhode Island, said that the club appeared to be professionally run and well-managed.
“From everything I looked at in that bar, they had their act together and knew what they were doing,” O’Connor said. “That’s why we were interested in buying it.”
Don Dokken, a metal bandleader from the 1980s who has worked as a producer for Great White, blamed the band for the tragedy. “I hate to say it. Great White’s been a friend of mine for 20 years, but they should not be using it,” he said. He said after viewing video from the fire, he was startled to see flames shooting high into the air.
“We didn’t even use flames that big when we were doing arenas,” he said.
He worried that Great White had cut corners. He said bands that cannot afford to hire a trained and certified pyrotechnician often use homemade “flash pods” made from lead pipes and electrical wire.
“What you do is pour some gunpowder in it and you get flames,” he said. “But it was obviously that whoever poured the gunpowder in overdid it and poured in way too much flash powder.”
“They’re using a homemade device,” he added. “It’s been done for 25 years. They can’t afford the expense of a band like Kiss.”
Clayton, the town clerk, also expressed surprise that the band had used such materials indoors. In his decade in the clerk’s office, he said he had never before seen a request for an indoor pyroctechnic performance.
The rare applications come for outdoor festivals hosted by groups like the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick and the Portugese Holy Ghost Society.
“I’ve been here for 10 years. I cannot recall ever submitting a pyrotechnic license for something that was inside a building,” Clayton said.
Great White was scheduled to play The Webster Theatre in Hartford tomorrow night, and had asked about its plans to use pyrotechnics, said CEO Justine Robertson.
“They did mention it and we said `absolutely not,’ “ said Robertson, who said the fire marshal will not allow them in the theater, even though it is “noncombustible,” made of concrete. “We have never had it before and we will never allow it. Everybody knows that at my theater.”