This article was originally published on Oct. 21, 2021.
PROVIDENCE — For nearly 20 years, the brothers who owned The Station nightclub kept silent about the deadly fire that killed 100 people and injured 200 more
There were tearful apologies soon after the tragedy on Feb. 20, 2003, when pyrotechnics during a performance by the band Great White turned the club into an inferno. More apologies came when the brothers were sentenced for 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter in 2006. But they refused to talk publicly about what happened.
Now, Jeffrey and Michael Derderian say they are finally ready to speak.
“We understand the enormity of what happened. People suffered enormously,” Jeffrey told the Globe in an interview. “We don’t want sympathy, but it never leaves us.”
“It’s not a redemption tour. It’s about the truth,” Michael said. “It’s the right thing to do, and it needs to be done ... to make sure the people who are entitled to hear the truth get the truth.”
The father of the youngest person to die that night does not believe them.
“I don’t understand it. I don’t understand what the motive is. I think it’s to whitewash their name and to diminish the reality of what they did,” said Dave Kane, whose 18-year-old son, Nick O’Neill, died in the fire. “They are doing it now to give it time before the 20th anniversary. This is calculated and they’re doing it so they’ll look better.”
The brothers declined to answer questions from the Globe about atonement or any relationships they have with the people and families who were affected by the fire. A newly established Facebook page houses video interviews and documents including the fire inspection reporttheir order for “sound foam,” a list of other clubs where Great White used firework without permission, and the band’s contract. The brothers say they promise to answer questions on the Facebook page and post more documents, grand jury testimony, witness statements, and other information in their possession, in a belated attempt to explain their side of the story. They are also appearing on CBS’s “48 Hours” on Oct. 23, about the fire and its aftermath.
“This happened on our doorstep, and it has our name attached to it forever,” said Jeffrey, who was working at the club that night and escaped the fire. “We understand that we’re sorry isn’t good enough. We take responsibility for the roles we played in the tragedy, and there isn’t a day that goes by that we don’t think about what happened.”
The “48 Hours” episode was prompted by the recent book, “Trial by Fire,” written by former Channel 6 news director Scott James and published last year. James had known Jeffrey Derderian, who had worked for him at Channel 6. He approached the brothers about the book a decade ago, and the work took years.
“Several people with key information about the disaster have been silent since the fire, and they’ve come forward to share their versions of events,” James told the Globe at the time. “Because there were no trials, criminal or civil, the government’s version of events was never vetted or challenged in court. That left unanswered questions. It turns out there are counter arguments and other evidence. Now people can consider those.”
For CBS News Senior Correspondent Jim Axelrod, hearing from the Derderians was a chance to learn more about that night.
“After nearly 19 years, people are pretty set. The roots of understanding are deep at this point,” Axelrod told the Globe. “But I do think we are presenting information that hasn’t been part of the public’s understanding.”
There was no criminal trial, so no testimony or cross-examination exists. The civil lawsuits were settled out of court. Some of the information never came to public light.
The hour-long “48 Hours” episode includes interviews with survivors and former Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch, whose office prosecuted the Derderians.
“This fire so tragic. When I went to the memorial, there is a sense that pervades you. You feel it and you start picturing that night in February. It’s an overwhelming feeling of sadness and (wondering if) could this been prevented?” Axelrod said. “We want to contribute to what is known about Feb. 20, 2003, and we feel strongly that we will be able to add to what is known that night, a night of tragedy and trauma that people will never recover from.”
What is known is that during the Great White’s performance, sparks from four on-stage gerbs — a type of firework that produces a blast of sparks — ignited soundproofing foam on the club’s walls and ceiling. The foam burst into flames, filling the club with toxic smoke as it burned.
At the time, Jeffrey Derderian was also a reporter for WPRI-12, and he had been assigned to a story about building safety. He thought it would be simpler to shoot some B-roll inside the club owned by him and his brother.
The video captured by cameraman Brian Butler showed how swiftly the fire spread. An investigation by The Providence Journal later found that people had just 102 seconds to escape. The newspaper was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for its work examining the event, leading to regulatory changes and revised fire codes.
A memorial to the dead has been built over the site of the nightclub at 211 Cowesett Ave. The 76 children who lost one or both parents in the fire in 2003 are now adults. But in Rhode Island, where so many people knew someone who was there that night, the pain lingers.
“They said it wasn’t overcrowded — they’re playing ignorant,” Kane said of the Derderians. They were allowed to increase the capacity, but didn’t increase the size of the exits, he said. And when the fire broke out and the crowd stampeded to get out, people were stacked up in the narrow doorway, he said.
His son Nick had gone to the nightclub excited to see Great White and open for the band. Michael Derderian had given Nick extra tickets for his friends. Great White’s Jack Russell invited the teen to play pool with them before the show.
“Nicky went back at 3 o’clock to play pool and be with the band,” Kane said. “His mother said when you come home tonight ...”
Kane’s voice broke, as he fought tears. “When you come home,” he finished, “you’re going to have a lot of stories to tell me.”
“I live it every day,” Kane added. “What we don’t need is someone telling us a fairy story to make us feel better about them. We can never feel good about the fire.”
Michael Derderian said he and his brother know that revisiting the tragedy now is like “scraping a scar.” Still, they decided they needed to explain their side of the story, and perhaps clear their own names.
“We think these people are owed this. It could have been sooner, but there were reasons it wasn’t sooner,” Jeffrey said. “We feel it’s the right thing to do, to give people the information and some solace. What led up to the fire. We said we would do it.”
“And we’re doing it,” Michael added.
The brothers said they stayed silent for so long on the advice of their lawyer, Kathleen Hagerty, as the criminal investigation was ongoing.
Hours after the fire, the West Warwick police chief told reporters that the Derderians would be facing criminal charges. They did, along with Daniel Biechele, the tour manager who lit the pyrotechnics. Each of them faced 200 counts of involuntary manslaughter.
Biechele pleaded guilty to 100 counts and served 16 months of a four-year sentence. The Derderians both pleaded no contest to 100 counts. Jeffrey Derderian was placed on three years’ probation and ordered to serve 500 hours of community service, while Michael Derderian was sentenced to the Adult Correctional Institutions and served two years and nine months.
Civil lawsuits from victims and their families resulted in a total of $176 million, from 65 defendants including the state of Rhode Island, the town of West Warwick, the foam company, and promoters. The Derderians declared bankruptcy.
“Through the years, we have met with family members ... who just wanted to sit down with us, who have questions, and nobody else can answer the questions,” Michael said. “We know exactly what happened with buying the club, the inspection, the foam, the unauthorized pyrotechnic use that happened in our club, and other clubs.”
The brothers say the Station was not over capacity. They are critical of the media coverage of the tragedy, particularly The Providence Journal. They are adamant that they never allowed fireworks inside the club, and on Facebook have posted documents showing that the band’s contract never mentioned pyrotechnics. They insist that they ordered “sound foam” from American Foam Corporation; they’ve posted the order forms for this, too. The foam salesman was Barry Warner a neighbor of the club; after the fire, Warner sent an anonymous fax to the attorney general’s office and the media saying that the company wasn’t truthful with customers about the dangers of foam. That fax is posted on Facebook as well; the brothers said the prosecutors withheld it from the grand jury.
Despite multiple visits by the fire marshal, building inspector, and insurance inspectors over three years, none took notice of the thick foam glued to the walls, ceiling, and one of the doors, they said.
They said that the fire marshal Denis P. Larocque lied to the grand jury, even as some questioned why he didn’t notice the foam. He also was responsible for raising the nightclub’s capacity to 404 and did not order the nightclub to have sprinklers, even though it would have been required by state law.
Larocque wasn’t charged with a crime. Though the attorney general didn’t offer an explanation, 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. Larocque retired in 2006 with a disability pension.
The Derderiens say they want the rest of the country to learn from the failures in Rhode Island, the rush to judgment by prosecutors, investigators, and the media, and the lack of accountability from public officials, vendors, and others.
“How can we make it better so it doesn’t happen again?” Michael asked. “It’s about raising awareness and taking something bad and horrific and trying to make something good out of it.”
“The systems failed,” Jeffrey said. “We made mistakes, we certainly did, we certainly played a role, but the systems failed, fire inspectors, the building inspectors, insurance, and they didn’t work.”
The brothers say they hope going public now will help, all these years later.
“This is for the victims and their families and the burn survivors, and their entire families to get them information about what happened, from the minute we bought that place to the minute of the tragedy,” Michael said. “If they want it, it’s there.”
“If they don’t want to believe,” he added, “there’s nothing we can do.”