Three nights before a fast-moving conflagration started by fireworks-like pyrotchenics inside the Station nightclub in West Warwick, R.I., claimed the lives of 100 people in 2003, a similar fire broke out in a club in Minneapolis. But the blaze at the Fine Line Music Cafe was extinguished in a few minutes with no loss of life by a sprinkler system that the owners had to install before opening their club in a converted building.
It would have cost Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, the brothers who owned the Station nightclub, $39,000 to put in such a system when they bought the business three years before, changing it from a restaurant for 225 people to a rock club with a capacity of more than 400 people. Even though Rhode Island law required that sprinklers be installed whenever a building underwent a shift in its “use or occupancy,” the Derderians avoided the mandate because fire marshal Denis “Rocky’’ Larocque, who also signed off on the increase in capacity, believed that the requirement somehow didn’t apply.
Sadly, in looking back at the Station nightclub fire nearly a decade later, such a human failing was not unique. Instead, as “Killer Show’’ lays out in excruciating detail, neither those involved in putting on the show or approving the club’s operation demonstrated any degree of responsibility or common sense. The book, written by John Barylick, a veteran Providence lawyer who represented families of those who died or were injured in the fire, recounts the story of the tragedy and closely examines its causes.
In his chronicle, Barylick, having reviewed the complete public record on the investigation into the tragedy, deftly assigns blame.
He notes that the Derderian brothers routinely oversold their shows, and numerous people were able to buy their way into that night’s performance long after capacity had been reached, jamming their way into the standing-room only floor. The brothers also installed cheap, highly flammable soundproofing all around the bandstand in an attempt to reduce complaints from neighbors about the volume. The egg-crate, polyurethane foam they used, coupled with a coating that Barylick found had been applied by a prior owner, allowed the fire to spread so quickly and burn at such high temperatures that those who did not escape the building within two minutes of the outbreak did not survive.
Although he routinely inspected the nightclub for compliance with city and state building and safety codes, fire marshal Larocque failed to shut down or even cite the Derderians for hanging the highly flammable soundproofing along the side and back walls of the bandstand. One of the rear doors of the nightclub that Larocque cited for opening and shutting in the wrong direction was covered with the soundproofing but his inspection report said nothing about its presence.
Despite Rhode Island law requiring anyone handling pyrotechnics during public performances to be certified, Daniel Biechele, road manager for the night’s main attraction, the 1980s rock group Great White, who ignited the “gerbs,’’ a kind of “heavy-duty sparkler,’’ that started the fire, had no such formal training. Biechele and the Derderians eventually pleaded guilty to 100 charges of misdemeanor manslaughter and 100 charges of involuntary manslaughter.
Barylick’s impressive organizational and analytical skills as a lawyer serve the reader well as he has based his narrative on the thousands of pages of investigative files that were made public after the criminal and civil cases were completed.
In addition, he puts a human face on this woeful tale of avarice and ineptitude with wrenching accounts of numerous people who were injured or who were alongside those who died. So many of them, in their 30s and 40s, were blue-collar and middle-class Rhode Islanders merely trying to enjoy a midweek escape from hard-working lives.
In “Killer Show,’’ John Barylick sifts an abundance of clear, convincing, and frightening evidence in what is perhaps the definitive account of the Station nightclub fire. And he demonstrates that the greatest tragedy here was that it didn’t need to happen.
Stephen Kurkjian, a retired
investigative reporter and editor for the Globe who covered
the aftermath of the Station nightclub fire, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.