This article was originally published on Oct. 22, 2021.
WEST WARWICK, R.I. — The owners of The Station nightclub say their decision to finally speak publicly about the deadly fire there nearly 20 years ago is not part of a “redemption tour,” but meant to help the survivors.
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 doing it so they’ll look better.”
After years of silence, brothers Michael A. and Jeffrey A. Derderian this week came forward to talk about what led to the fire on Feb. 20, 2003, when pyrotechnics at the start of a show by rock band Great White ignited flammable foam along the walls and ceiling inside their nightclub. Within seconds, the sparks became a deadly inferno that killed a hundred people and left another 200 with injuries.
The brothers tearfully apologized soon after the fire, and again when they were sentenced in 2006 on 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter. But now they are sharing videos, articles, and documents on Facebook and with the Boston Globe. They spoke in-depth for a book published last year, “Trial By Fire.” They will appear on CBS’s “48 Hours” on Oct. 23.
The brothers say they aren’t seeking sympathy, but are keeping a promise they made at their sentencing to answer questions about what they did and what they knew about the fire. They said they needed time to tell the full story, the right way.
While Kane is critical of then-Attorney General Patrick Lynch, for the criminal investigation that charged the Derderians and the Great White’s tour manager, Daniel Biechele, but let so many others walk away, he says the Derderians were ultimately responsible for safety at their own nightclub.
“They said it wasn’t overcrowded — they’re playing ignorant,” Kane said. 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.
Since his son’s death, Kane has been an advocate for fire safety, but he believes the state went in the wrong direction and enacted laws that were financially burdensome for small businesses and did not necessarily save lives. “What we needed were fire marshals who enforced the laws we have,” Kane said. “We needed fire marshals and public safety officials to do their job.”
He and Nick’s mother, Joanne, forgave Biechele, who pleaded guilty and wept as he apologized for setting off the fireworks. Biechele wrote letters to every family who lost someone that night. But, Kane says, he does not understand what the Derderians are trying to accomplish now.
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.”
They’ve kept Nick’s memory alive since his death. A play he wrote a year before he died, about teenagers who die and come back as angels, was turned into a script. Kane said they’ve sold the movie option to Silver Wing Films. It’s called “41,” which was Nick’s favorite number. That’s also the title of a documentary about Nick’s life.
They still have birthday parties for Nick. He’s now been gone for as many years as he was alive.
“I live it every day,” Kane said. “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.”
Amanda Milkovits can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMilkovits.