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Metro

Questions still linger over fire inspector’s role

Denis Larocque, West Warwick’s chief fire inspector at the time of the nightclub fire

JOHN TLUMACKI/GLOBE STAFF

Denis Larocque, West Warwick’s chief fire inspector at the time of the nightclub fire, inspected The Station at least twice in the years immediately preceding the blaze.

WEST WARWICK, R.I. — No single person bears the blame for the fire at The Station nightclub, but, for relatives of the dead and survivors of the inferno, one name stands out: Denis P. Larocque.

“Rocky,” the town’s chief fire inspector at the time of the fire, inspected The Station at least twice in the years immediately preceding the blaze, but he failed to cite club owners Michael and Jeffrey Derderian for installing highly flammable foam soundproofing materials that covered some walls and parts of the ceiling. Starting in 1999, he also dramatically increased the club’s legal capacity from 258 to 404.

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Yet, unlike the Derderians and the band manager who set off the indoor pyrotechnics — or fireworks — that started the fire, Larocque was never charged, and prosecutors never explained why. In fact, he continued working for the fire department for years until leaving due to a job-related injury in 2006 and retiring on a disability pension, according to a new book on the fire.

“How could a guy like that not be indicted?” said Robert Johnson, a 77-year-old TV repairman in Easton, Pa., whose son, Derek, 32, was among the 100 who died in the fire. “I just want justice for my son, that’s all. That’s what I’ve been after for 10 years.”

Angel O. Amitrano, whose father, Thomas Barnett, died in the fire, said that in the decade after the fire she found a way to forgive the Derderians, but not Larocque.

“Your job is to go in there and protect people, and you signed your name to a document that says this is a secure, safe club,” she said, adding that she left Rhode Island in part because of the official response to the fire. “I was disgusted with the state as a whole.”

Larocque’s failings were obvious, according to John Barylick, an attorney for victims’ families and author of “Killer Show,” a book recounting the fire and its aftermath. Larocque failed to notice highly visible corrugated polyurethane foam on the walls, even though he would have had to reach through it to use the handle of a door he cited for opening the wrong way.

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He also failed to note that The Station had been converted from a restaurant to a nightclub, which should have triggered a requirement for the installation of life-saving sprinklers. And he boosted the club’s capacity twice, from 258 to 317 to 404.

Larocque has never spoken publicly about his role in the inferno, declining to answer questions from a Globe reporter who visited his home recently. Larocque did give confidential testimony to a grand jury empaneled by then-Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch but transcripts released to the public show he simply said he did not notice the flammable sound-proofing.

Barylick, however, speculated that Lynch might have been reluctant to see the grand jury indict Larocque for fear of losing the case. Rhode Island law grants immunity from criminal prosecution to the state fire marshal for actions and omissions made in the “good faith performance of his duties,” a provision that may have covered Larocque.

When it came to the Derderians, Lynch’s grand jury issued indictments charging each of them with 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter and 100 counts of misdemeanor manslaughter.

The Derderians had personally installed the flammable sound insulation after purchasing it through a neighbor who often complained about noise from shows at The Station. And illegal pyrotechnics were used at their club during the performance of the heavy metal band Great White, according to prosecutors.

But in 2006, families looking forward to their day in court were stunned when the judge in the case announced that the Derderians agreed to plead “no contest” to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter related to the flammable foam insulation in exchange for greatly reduced sentences.

As a result, Jeffrey Derderian walked away with a sentence of 500 hours of community service, and no jail time, while Michael was sentenced to serve a four-year prison term.

Lynch did not return calls from the Globe, but in 2006, he sent a letter to victims opposing the deal, explaining it was reached after the Derderians approached Judge Francis J. Darigan Jr.

“I was unwilling to recommend or agree to the sentences that I have been advised the court will impose,” Lynch wrote. “Most significantly, I strongly disagree with the Court’s intention to sentence Jeffrey Derderian to less than jail.”

Darigan, in his own letter to victims, said he approved the agreement to prevent a “lengthy, costly, and heart-rending trial whose outcome was uncertain.”

But neither Lynch nor Darigan addressed the decision to leave Larocque alone.

“The civil system seems to have performed well,” Barylick said, noting that victims’ families and survivors won a total of $175 million in civil settlements. On the other hand, Barylick said, “The regulatory system — the fire codes and enforcement — and the criminal justice system may have let the victims down.”

A decade after the blaze, one civil case remains. In April 2003, the Rhode Island Workers’ Compensation Court ordered the Derderians to pay a $1.1 million fine for failing to take out workers’ compensation insurance for their Station employees. The Derderians appealed and successfully delayed the payment during their bankruptcy proceedings, but those concluded three years ago.

Now, Chief Judge George E. Healy Jr., has given attorneys for the Derderians and the state Department of Labor and Training until the end of the month to submit briefs on the appeal amid hopes that a three-judge appeals panel can rule on the case by April.

Key figures in The Station nightclub fire

DENIS LAROCQUE

West Warwick fire inspector, retired

Larocque was never charged and prosecutors never explained why. A new book says he continued working for the fire department for years until leaving due to a job-related injury in 2006 and retiring on a disability pension.

MICHAEL AND JEFFREY DERDERIAN

Owners of The Station

A 2006 deal allowed the two to plead no contest. Jeffrey was sentenced to 500 hours of community service, with no jail time, and Michael was sentenced to serve a four-year prison term.

PATRICK LYNCH

Rhode Island attorney general, 2003-2011

Lynch opposed the deal with the Derderians, which he said was reached after they approached the judge in the case. “I was unwilling to recommend or agree to the sentences that I have been advised the court will impose,” he wrote.

Mark Arsenault contributed to this story. Michael Rezendes can be reached at rezendes@globe.com. ­Follow him on Twitter @RezGlobe.

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