This story was reported by Stephen Kurkjian, Stephanie Ebbert, and Thomas Farragher of the Globe staff. It was written by Farragher. Part 2 of 2.
You can’t use that door’
An inward-swinging door - three times cited as a code violation by West Warwick inspectors and three times replaced by club managers - was blocking the exit closest to the stage. A sign on the door proclaimed: “Door remains closed at all times.” Bouncers opened it immediately after the fire broke out, but some survivors said that at least one of the bouncers guarded the exit for the band and told patrons to find another way out.
“We were heading toward the [stage] door there,” said Gibbs, 36, who ultimately fled through a window. “[A club bouncer] says: `You can’t use that door. It’s reserved for the band.’ . . . It was like, `OK, you’re not going to let me out that way, I’ll find another way.’ “
He and his friend, Dunn, gripped hands as they made their way toward the front exit, but when someone squeezed between them, they lost their hold. Gibbs fell, and when he recovered, he could not find Dunn. He would never see him again.
Cormier said a bouncer tried to “herd people” to the front and bumped chests with Cormier when he resisted. “My father looked right at him and said, `The place is on fire, you idiot,’ “ said Cormier. The Cormiers raced outside, where they saw Great White guitarist Mark Kendall.
Giamei, a former club employee and a longtime patron, said he headed for the stage door. “I overcame my fear and went toward that wall that was on fire,” he said.
Club manager Beese, at the main bar when the fire began, said he raced to the front door, where a fire extinguisher was kept near the ticket-taking station. In the stampede that followed, he said, he could not reach the stage. “I ended up dropping the fire extinguisher, and I got pushed against the wall,” Beese said. “I had to push off people. And I’d push. And then I’d move them. Then I’d push. Then I kind of slid my way out the door.”
Blinding smoke was rapidly enveloping the club. Fire raced up its walls and across its ceiling. The piercing alert from the club’s alarm system - triggered by heat greater than 195 degrees - sounded 48 seconds after the pyrotechnics display.
The crowd surged toward two exits, both at the front of the building: the main entrance and the bar door. Fire codes are written to prevent such a rush by requiring that a minimum of two exits be placed far apart from each other.
At the main entrance, patrons’ escape was slowed by a ticket booth built into the floor. Three feet of space separated the ticket booth and the wall, said Max Wistow, interim lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the fire, who measured the span after the fire. That meant the crowd had to squeeze through two-abreast to reach the corridor to the main exit.
Just around the corner, beside another partition, Adam Tanzi, 24, of West Warwick stood waiting to make sure his friends were behind him. He tried to push himself back into the crowd, but he was pushed up against the partition. Two of his fingers were crushed against it, the fingernails pulled halfway off. Blinded by smoke, he tripped and toppled onto another person. He found himself with his head and torso stretched outside the front door, his legs still inside.
Panicked patrons continued to trip, fall, or jump on top of him, as he lay on the cusp between life and death.
“Once one person falls, those in the back just pile up like cordwood,” said Jake Pauls, a Maryland-based safety specialist who studies crowd management. He told the Globe that the bottleneck at the front door may have resulted from a single stumble as the crush grew.
Pauls said the crowd at the station should have been able to evacuate in 200 seconds. But, from his examination of the videotape, he estimates that once patrons reacted to the reality of the fire, they had just 43 seconds to get out before the main door was blocked.
Caught in the bottleneck were Cripe, the truck driver, and his girlfriend, Sharon Wilson. As they approached the foyer, they lost sight of Hamelin, who was obscured by toxic smoke that filled the foyer and fueled the panic.
Wilson, within a few feet of freedom, got “stampeded to the ground.” Cripe, slammed up against the entryway wall, pushed his way to freedom and then dug into the human pile for Wilson. “I got pushed down on the ground, and then people just kept falling on top of me,” she said. “It was like dominoes. People just kept falling down.”
When Cripe finally wrestled his girlfriend from the pile, she was naked from the waist down. But alive.
Anatomy of an inferno
The fire moved with the precision and speed of a killer weather system.
It surged out and up. It hungrily searched for air and fuel. It began against a wall and spread quickly to where that wall met the ceiling, so its natural cone-shaped energy was compacted and concentrated there, radiating unusually intense flames.
“It’s coming forward with twice the intensity it would had that fire started in the middle of the room,” said Michael O’Shaughnessey, a Fall River-based forensic consultant who studied the physics of the fire for the Globe.
Two fans mounted near the ceilings on either side of the stage - which employees said were always on for a big show - would have directed the smoke at 45-degree angles out and down toward the dance floor, chasing frightened patrons toward the front door.
If the foam and pyrotechnics were the fire’s critical flash point, its ferocity and direction were driven by the air that moved in and through the nightclub.
A fire in a wastebasket in a room, where doors are closed and windows are shut, will starve itself of oxygen and extinguish - like a candle covered by a glass.
At The Station, customers fleeing to safety were, as they shattered windows and opened doors, supplying any fire’s most critical resource: fresh air.
“Windows eventually break,” said Robert Duval, senior fire investigator for the National Fire Protection Association in Quincy. “You have a door that’s open. So it’s getting air.”
Four minutes after the fire had begun, smoke had descended to within a foot of the floor. As the foam burned, it emitted cyanide, carbon monoxide, and other superheated toxins that would sear the throats and choke the lungs of those trapped inside.
Many of those who escaped were burned about the ears, neck, the back of the head, and hands - the defensive wounds of those conscious enough to duck, cover, and run.
“In a room full of smoke, it wouldn’t take more than a few breaths of hot gas to injure your airway,” said. Dr. Thomas G. Germano, a Kent Hospital physician who treated victims of the blaze.
As the fire burned through all the oxygen in its path, those still inside and alive would become increasingly oxygen starved and disoriented. No human organ is more reliant on oxygen than the brain.
The unedited WPRI-TV video, an invaluable investigative tool, also serves as a remarkable time clock. Brian Butler, who shot the video, was among the first patrons out of the club. And he kept his camera rolling without interruption for nine minutes after the fire began.
About five minutes after the pyrotechnics erupted, Butler ran, video rolling, to the side of the building. By then, flames were licking out from the eaves of the club’s rear offices. In eerie footage shot through the opened stage door, the swirling black smoke can be seen filling the club, descending almost to the floor. There are no survivors in sight.
The blaze found its way through ductwork. It ate its way through insulation stuffed into the suspended ceiling above the dance floor. It consumed the 50-year-old timber used to frame a neighborhood barroom-turned-nightclub.
“It basically created its own little storm in there,” O’Shaughnessey said.
At 11:07 p.m., the first emergency call came in from West Warwick Patrolman Anthony Bettencourt, the police officer hired to work a detail that night.
“Send fire, there’s a fire at The Station,” he told dispatch, noting that people were trapped inside, according to a police affidavit. Sirens from fire trucks - responding from the nearest station, three-tenths of a mile up Cowesett Avenue, could be heard four minutes and 30 seconds after the fireworks ignited.
It was a response time that the NFPA’s Duval said is not unusual.
By the time fire trucks arrived, the WPRI video reveals, the club was fully aflame. Glass shattered. Patrons, bloodied and blackened, walked wild-eyed through the ghastly parking lot.
Someone, clothes on fire, ran hideously from the club. Fire trucks pulled up. Hoses were spilled into a parking lot of panic and pandemonium.
And there, near the tour bus that had carried him to West Warwick nine hours earlier, was Daniel M. Biechele, pulling on hoses that would be no match for the growing inferno.
The man who ordered the pyrotechnics from Memphis and ignited them in Rhode Island was trying fruitlessly to put the fire out.
`Closure never happens’
When the flames finally died, at least 25 bodies were found stacked in and around the nightclub’s front entry. Fire chaplains said prayers over their remains.
Jim Gahan, the 21-year-old Falmouth, Mass., native who just hours earlier had so earnestly questioned Jack Russell about the future of rock music, died near there. His friend and radio cohost Mike Ricardi escaped through a front window.
Andrea Mancini, who collected tickets, and her husband, Steve, who had performed in one of Great White’s warm-up acts that night, did not escape. Neither did Bonnie Hamelin, 27, of Warwick, who had suggested a night of live music to her old friend, Bob Cripe.
Linda Fisher fell to the ground and was able to get out through a window. She was treated for burns. Kevin Dunn, 37, whose friend said he had been blocked by a bouncer from leaving the stage door, never made it out.
In the days and weeks after the fire, the ruined nightclub was fenced off, serving temporarily as a shrine for the 100 who died there. It has since been demolished, its cellar hole leveled off. Its charred remains have been trucked away.
Prosecutors have collected evidence, and civil lawyers have catalogued 717 items - bar stools and burned-out drums - and stored them on shelves in a Cranston warehouse.
Beese, the club manager, said he thinks he knows what Biechele meant when he was overheard saying, “I [screwed] up.” The pyrotechnics were set up hastily in the dark and placed too close to the stage’s rear wall, Beese said.
“If [Biechele is] another 6 or 8 inches out further from that drum riser, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation because it wouldn’t have hit the wall,” Beese said.
For his part, Beese acknowledges that the fire extinguisher he put in the club’s closet may have at least tamed the fire’s early fury, and fire specialists agree. “Maybe it would have been able to take care of the side by the door,” he said. “. . .Believe me, we tried to do what we could do. We really did. You know?”
Beese said he returned to the burning building twice, trying to guide trapped patrons to safety.
Jeffrey Derderian was unaware that the fire extinguisher had been moved, said Pine, his attorney. He also maintains that the Derderians were never told the foam that a neighbor sold them was flammable - and that they should not be considered criminally liable.
“I don’t believe that people who purchase a product and use that product, which is then lit on fire in an intentional act . . . are criminals for having purchased it,” Pine said.
Pine insists the Derderians gave no permission for the fireworks. And it is clear that Great White wasn’t always a stickler for getting a club’s OK for its display. In the band’s 12 appearances in the month before West Warwick, Great White used pyrotechnics in at least five clubs without permission, according to owners or managers of those venues. However, in the week before the fire, Biechele did seek permission from all the clubs where Great White would appear the following week.
A grand jury sitting in Rhode Island has been hearing testimony now for more than three months, poring over evidence about who is to blame for the tragedy.
Biechele’s laptop computer, now in the hands of investigators, may contain a critical clue. Biechele asserts that he got approval for the pyrotechnics during a telephone conversation with Michael Derderian days before the concert. And two people familiar with the laptop say a box on a computer spreadsheet labeled “pyro” for Great White’s Station appearance contains a check mark. A forensic analysis of the computer shows it had not been tampered with after the fire, said one person familiar with the spreadsheet.
The 2003 tour was the first time Great White used pyrotechnics as part of its show, Woolnough, the band’s manager said.
He said he knew Biechele had used the fireworks during his years as tour manager for the metal band W.A.S.P. and he trusted his work. It was during a W.A.S.P appearance in March 2000 that Biechele, according to two associates, says he had previously set off fireworks at The Station.
Woolnough said Biechele never told him that local permits were required before “pyro” could be fired.
Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch said he is weeks, perhaps months, away from deciding whether to criminally charge anyone for the fire.
“People said right from the outset, it was the Derderians and the band,” Lynch said in an interview. “They were playing off one versus the other. I’ve never had a short list, nor do I today.”
Regardless, he said, no indictment, no trial, no conviction will deliver the finality that some people hope for.
“Closure never happens in these cases,” he said. “I cannot provide closure. I cannot do that. I’m just not empowered to do that. I’m empowered with some responsibilities and an opportunity I believe to provide some solace to some families.”
Previously: Part 1 - Deception, missteps sparked a tragedy