It was a typical Thursday night in February. Outside, it was freezing; snow banks piled up beside the roads. Inside, it was t-shirts and shorts hot, as hundreds of eager bodies pressed forwards to see the stage or reach the bar. Rock gigs are much the same wherever you go, and the people in the audience that night probably expected to leave with ringing in their ears.
Those who did get out were left with much worse than that.
The Station nightclub, in West Warwick, Rhode Island, was a pretty typical roadhouse. It had started life as a navy bar in the Second World War, and went through various incarnations along the way, but in 2003 it was a rock club. This didn’t please everyone in the area; neighbours in the residential area nearby were particularly put out by the inconvenience of cars being parked illegally on their streets, and by the noise. The owners had tried to make peace with the neighbours, promising to keep doors on their side closed to limit sound leakage, and putting up foam insulation around the stage area inside. In fact, one of the complaining neighbours worked for a foam company, so the owners bought their insulation through him to sweeten the deal.
The 2003 Talent Buyers Directory, a guide book used by agents to find venues for their bands, listed the Station with a capacity of 550 people. This information was provided by the owners and taken at face value.
That was enough to draw in a few national tours as well as the usual fare of local covers bands. They had hosted Anthrax, The Dead Kennedys, W.A.S.P. – and, on the 20th of February 2003, they had Great White headlining.
At their peak in the late 80s, Great White had achieved gold and platinum success, touring around the world and appearing alongside bands like Bon Jovi and Kiss.
But it wasn’t the eighties any more; things weren’t the same. Even though the signs outside said “Great White”, it wasn’t, strictly speaking, the same band. They had split up some years before. Lead singer Jack Russell had recruited guitarist Mark Kendall to play on this tour, allowing them to perform as “Jack Russell’s Great White” despite not having the rest of the band with them.
Not that the audience that night particularly cared about that – they just wanted a good night out. Some were Great White fans, back in the day, while others were too young to really remember the eighties. Some went for the music, some for the company they were with.
They had been promised a good night; in a radio interview earlier that day, Jack Russell had said it was going to be a killer show. Those words would take on a very different meaning once the night was over.
Alongside the audience, the Station held plenty of people who were there to work. John Arpin, Scott Vieira and Tracy King were there as security. Andrea Mancini was taking tickets; her husband Steve had played an opening set with his band Fathead, and then checked IDs with her at the door. Dina DeMaio was waitressing; Jennifer Choquette and Julie Mellini tended bar. Linda Fisher, a friend of Julie’s, had come to see the band, but got press-ganged into selling Great White merchandise, because nobody else was available. Mike Gonsalves, better known to local radio listeners as the DJ Doctor Metal, was there to introduce the bands and Patrolman Anthony Bettencourt, of the West Warwick Police, was there on a private security detail, helping to keep the crowd in order.
At about twenty to eleven, videographer Brian Butler arrived. He had been assigned by Channel 12 to get some generic nightclub footage for their reporter Jeff Derderian – who also happened to be co-owner of The Station. He hadn’t been told what the footage was for, but as he was specifically asked to get shots of the crowd and of exit signs, it was fairly easy to guess. Just three nights before, twenty one people had been killed in a crush at a Chicago nightclub when everyone tried to get out of one exit at once.
Butler made his way around the club, getting footage of the crowd from the stage, artistic shots of lights and signs, a few shots of the bar and generally scenes of people out having a good time.
Then, just after eleven o’clock, the headliners took to the stage, and Butler was in a pretty good position to film them.
His footage starts off looking like any other rock gig in any other club. The crowd ahead of him, mostly clad in black t-shirts, greet the band enthusiastically with arms raised, some fists punching the air in time to the beat, others throwing the devil’s horn signs which have become traditional for rock fans.
As Jack Russell takes the stage, three pyrotechnic gerbs send streams of white sparks flying through the air.
Professional performers, Great White don’t look behind them at their special effects. Not even when the crowd stop cheering, and start waving and pointing back. They keep playing, not seeing what the crowd – and Butler’s camera – can see.
Butler’s footage. WARNING: Graphic Content.
Brenda Cormier was there with her brother Tim, father Bruce and stepmother Donna. Standing just a few feet from the stage, on the right, they had a clear view. In her witness statement later Brenda said,
“The pyrotechnics were going off for a while… ten or fifteen seconds, which is a long time in my eyes for that to go off. I’ve never seen them before, and as they were still going off, one caught the foam on fire and went from one side – the first flame was probably the size of golf balls and just from that point on, took off and went vertically up the wall and then spread to the ceiling.”
Donna Cormier didn’t see who set the pyrotechnics off – she was, in her own words, looking at Jack Russell because she’s in love with him – but she did see what happened next.
“I was kinda looking off to the right, trying to see behind, and I saw behind the pyrotechnics, the foam wall, like it started, like the size of a nickel, in a couple of spots, fire, and I said, “Bruce, the wall is on fire.” And he looked, and he said, “They’ll put that right out,” and then I was going, “No, the wall is on fire.” I mean, it was really going up. I never saw anything go that fast in all my life, and we saw a man run across the stage, I couldn’t tell you who it was, I just saw a bottle of water being thrown at it, and I thought, “That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen.”
At this point, many patrons of the Station were already trying to leave. Butler put his camera over his shoulder, still running, and made his way through the crowd towards the front door. He moved quickly at first, but at the far end of the room comes practically to a standstill. Only then does the band stop playing; Jack Russell can be heard saying, “Wow. That’s not good,” a couple of seconds before the fire alarms start going off. Forty seconds have passed since the gerbs were lit.
Because Butler’s camera is now pointing behind him, the yellowy-orange of the spreading fire can clearly be seen over the heads of the increasingly scared audience. Butler is jostled and pushed along a wall; a woman’s scream pierces through the alarms as he passes through a door. Black smoke is already rolling above the heads of those behind him as he passes the front entrance doors and makes it out into the snowy carpark.
There’s no music any more. Just the high pitched whistle of the fire alarms, and screams. The camera swings around crazily, showing snow on the ground, a blur of orange flame against a black sky, and windows blackened by smoke.
One minute and fifty seconds after the pyrotechnics began, Butler is back at the front doors of the Station. But people aren’t rushing out anymore. Instead, they lie one atop another, head forwards, arms desperately reaching out for help, trapped in the doorway with choking smoke above them.
Patrolman Mark Knott was patrolling the area, and had stopped in at the Station to perform a security check. He was just leaving when he heard a radio call from Patrolman Bettencourt inside.
“As I turned around on the front landing to assist Patrolman Bettencourt, I was approached by numerous patrons attempting to flee from thick black smoke. I climbed over the railing to avoid being trampled and attempt to direct the people away from the building. A male was attempting to kick out a window to the right of the main door and I removed three window panes with my expandable baton. An anonymous male assisted me with pulling approximately a dozen people through the windows before no one else was visible or within our arms reach. I then assisted Patrolman Bettencourt with pulling patrons from the front entrance. The door was clogged with people laying on the floor and steps and they were stacked at least five feet high. We removed several dozen more people with the assistance of several unknown civilians.”
Linda Fisher was in an area to the right of the stage, usually used as a pool room, which had windows from floor to ceiling, like a greenhouse. The pool tables had been pushed to the sides to make more space for the audience, and she was using one as a stall for Great White merchandise.
According to her statement, when the band came on she was surprised that the pyrotechnics were so big; she also stated that she saw the right side catch fire right away. Debra Wagner, who had also been recruited to help sell t-shirts, told Fisher they should start for the front door. Fisher responded, “350 people and one door doesn’t work.” She told Wagner they’d be crushed. Instead, she grabbed a box of CDs – to identify her as being “with the band” – and aimed for the stage door.
She was, however, confident that the fire would be put out quickly. She even took the time to push boxes of merchandise underneath the tables first, so they wouldn’t be stolen.
Before they could move very far at all, the smoke and heat hit them. Fisher told Wagner to get on the floor where the air was better, and waited for the sprinklers to activate.
There were no sprinklers in The Station. When Fisher realised, she said, “What did I do?”
She could feel her lips cracking from the heat as she tried to kick out a window.
“[I] made my peace with God and as soon as I did, the window was broke (from outside) and hands reached in and grabbed Debbie out and then me.”
Meanwhile, the Cormiers had made straight for the nearest exit – the stage door, just feet away from where they had been standing.
“The man that had been standing at – he was a staffer – he’d been standing at the door for considerable amount of the evening, put his hand, uh, a couple of the band members went off the stage directly in front of us, they were heading out the door, and the staff man put his arm up and said, “You have to use the other exit.””
Donna was tempted to stop, but her husband Bruce swore at the staffer, asking “Are you an idiot?” and pushed the family out through the door.
Michael Iannone was also standing on that side of the stage, and also made for the stage door first.
“I was grabbed by someone I believe to be an employee of The Station nightclub. He said “Band only exit.” At the same time he pushed me back into the crowd. And then I, as soon as I regained my control of my feet, I sprinted to the front door, the main entrance.”
He got as far as the vestibule area at the front – between the front doors themselves and another set of doors.
“The person behind me lost control of their feet, I presume, and we just piled on top of each other.”
He didn’t recall how he got out. “I felt someone grab my arm, and I blacked out right after that.”
He was taken to the hospital, where he remained unconscious until April. He was severely burned; he lost a hand.
Raul Vargas was also trapped in the doorway.
“… the lights went out. Then it got completely dark, and that’s when everybody panicked and everybody started pushing. And I fell down, and I felt a couple things burn my leg, felt people screaming, and then… I didn’t feel any more heat, I was just sweating from the bodies on top of me, but it wasn’t like, you know, I wasn’t burning or anything like that. So, I just laid there, and I just leaned in my head a little bit when I found an air pocket and I felt cool air coming in. So, I kept my face down there and just waited for the [firemen] to come. When I heard them, I’m like, “Okay, they’re closer, I’m still not burning so things are good.” Then I waited for them to come in, and I could hear the walkie-talkies all their equipment, and I said, “Okay, good, I hear that,” that’s the next step. Then the third step was I’ll just wait [til] I feel the water…And, uh, I just stayed calm, and I said, “Okay, now I just got to wait for them to start lifting the bodies off, lifting the people off and pulling them off.” At that point I thought a lot of people were still alive. I just didn’t know it was that bad. And, uh, the firemen, I started to hear them say, “This one’s dead,” “That one’s dead” and pulling people off, and I started feeling it get a little lighter on me so I started moving a little.…
They pulled once they couldn’t get me. Then they pulled again. They got me out. But before that I saw burned bodies all around me. One guy was burnt beyond recognition to my right. The guy to my left I heard screaming “Get me out, get me out, get me out.”
Vargas stated that it was 12:30 – almost an hour and a half after the fire started – when he was eventually pulled out and put into an ambulance. Miraculously, he suffered no severe injuries; just four burns to his left leg.
Butler’s video camera stayed on the door for more than two minutes. The fire alarm cuts out and all you can hear is people screaming and yelling, some desperate for help, others desperate to help, many shocked and helpless.
He moves across the car park, telling somebody to get the band’s bus out of the way – it stood right across those greenhouse windows – and makes his way around to the stage exit, which is standing open.
His shout is not answered. The thick smoke hangs barely a few inches above the ground. According to expert reports, it has been impossible to survive in there for the last three and a half minutes.
He moves further around the building. There is more smoke, issuing from cracks in the walls, and more flames, but no exits, and no people. There had once been an exit on this side – by the bathrooms – but it had been blocked off long ago.
Back around the front of the building, chaos reigns. Where smoke was pouring through the doors, now there are flames. The fire department are on the scene, but the fire is blazing so strongly that there is little that they can do for those still trapped.
Pictures taken the following day by the West Warwick Fire Department show the extent of the damage. The building was completely gutted. A small section around the front entrance remained standing, a mural of Ozzy Osbourne still visible beside the door with the club’s name still legible above his head, charred and blackened around the edges. Behind, there is only debris.
Ninety six people perished inside The Station that night; four more died in hospital from their injuries. Two hundred and thirty people were injured. One hundred and thirty two people escaped without physical injuries; later studies showed that many suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result.
In analysing the Station nightclub fire, it is difficult to point to one single factor that made it so deadly. It was a lethal combination, a perfect storm of events that led up to catastrophe.
First, there is the issue of the club’s capacity. Although the owners advertised a capacity of 550, the local fire marshal Denis Larocque had only given them license to hold 404 people, “when all tables and chairs are removed from all areas”, on the provision that a uniformed firefighter was privately hired on those occasions. It should be noted that the fire code does not actually allow for its limits to be relaxed in this way. The same code also defines standing room as “only that part of the building directly accessible to doors for a hasty exit” – and Larocque had effectively classified the entire building as standing room to arrive at that number. There were over four hundred people in the club on that night.
Next, there was the issue of exits. There were in fact four exits from the building; the main doors at the front, the stage exit on the right, an exit by the bar on the left, and an exit from the kitchen. Most of the customers were utterly unaware of the kitchen exit. Survivors testified that they were turned away from the stage exit. Only a few were guided out of the bar exit by employees like Julie Mellini. Most turned by instinct to leave the same way that they had entered – through the front doors.
The problem was with how those doors were laid out. When you entered The Station, you passed through two sets of double doors, paid or showed your ticket at the desk, then proceeded through to the main club area. The passageway beside the desk was just thirty three inches wide.
As Linda Fisher had said, “350 people and one door doesn’t work.”
In addition, there was a slight slope to the floor in the vestibule area; it sloped down from the building to the door. Not an issue when nobody’s in a hurry to leave, but once a crowd is crushed into that small space, it made it far too easy for somebody to lose their footing. Once that happened, the crush was inevitable. One person fell, another fell on top of them, somebody else tried to climb over but was pulled back by another person who was hoping desperately to be dragged out…
Of course, none of this would have been an issue if not for the fire, which was started by the use of pyrotechnics. According to the law, a permit was required to use pyrotechnics like the gerbs used by Great White. This could only be issued to a licensed pyrotechnician, and usually required a safety demonstration in advance and the presence of extinguishers at the time of use.
The gerbs were set off by Great White’s tour manager, Daniel Biechele, who was not a licensed pyrotechnician. There had been no safety demonstration. There were no fire extinguishers to hand. There was no permit.
In the days after the fire, there was a lot of debate about whether the club’s owners, Jeff and Mike Derderian, had given the band permission to use pyrotechnics. They released a statement that: “At no time did either owner have prior knowledge that pyrotechnics were going to be used by the band Great White.”
Biechele and Great White’s singer, Russell, both asserted that they had the Derderian’s permission. During the Great White tour, they had sometimes used pyrotechnics, and sometimes not. Certain venues, like the Shark City sports bar in Glendale Heights, Illinois and the Ovation Club in Boynton Beach, Florida refused permission, and they performed without.
Pyrotechnics had been used at The Station before. In fact, Biechele had used them there before; he had been the tour manager when W.A.S.P. performed there, using pyrotechnics in their show.
And, in the days running up to the show, the band had talked about using pyro. Donna Cormier testified that she had heard an interview with Jack Russell on the radio the previous evening; “Jack Russell said on the air that there would be pyrotechnics, and that it was gonna be a monster show.”
Pyrotechnics are designed to produce sparks in a safe and manageable way; so next we have to look at why they ignited the fire. That is simple. The Station’s walls were covered with flammable material.
This goes back to the noise complaints that neighbours had made. Barry Warner, whose house sat behind the Station, was one of the chief complainants. In May 2000, when the Derderians had taken over, they had gone to visit Warner, promising to be good neighbours. During that conversation, Warner had thrown out a few suggestions as to how they could deaden the noise; they could install a false wall on that side of the building. They could use curtains. Or, they could buy foam. And he happened to work for a company that sold polyurethane foam. Some time later, he dropped off a sample for them. They then bought twenty five blocks of foam from Warner’s employer, and stuck it up on the wall.
There were flame-retardant foams available, but the Derderians didn’t buy that kind. They bought cheap packing foam. The kind that gives off cyanide gas when burned.
This wasn’t noticed by the fire marshal during his inspections. If he had any doubt about the flammability of the material on the wall, he was supposed to test it by holding a match to it. If he had done, he would have quickly seen it was inappropriate. But he didn’t test it.
So, the Station was overcrowded, with insufficient exits available, pyrotechnics were being used without permission and the walls were covered with flammable and toxic material. Still, according to computer simulations by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, if there had been a sprinkler system installed at The Station, the fire would have been survivable.
The law required sprinklers for places of public assembly occupied by more than three hundred people, but the Station had got away without installing one because of a grandfather clause. The building had been built before the law was introduced, so it was exempt. Or, perhaps. The exemption was not supposed to apply if the building had undergone a change in use or occupancy, and over the years the Station had changed both. It had been a restaurant before it was a bar, and as a bar its occupancy had been gradually increased. It started off at 225; in December 1999 it was set at 258 “in the club’s present layout” or 317 if tables and chairs were removed from the lounge areas, and then just a couple of months later increased again to 404 if all the tables and chairs were removed and a firefighter was present.
A sprinkler system would have cost the Derderians about $39,000 dollars. They spent more than that on the club’s sound system.
So, it was the combination of all of these factors – the club’s overcrowding, the insufficient available exits, the use of unlicensed pyrotechnics in an area insulated by flammable materials with no sprinkler system – that lead to the death of one hundred people.
In the wake of the tragedy, the fire regulations were tightened. The grandfather clause was removed, so sprinklers would now be required in buildings of any age with a capacity of 100 or more, and extra training was given to fire marshals.
In addition, criminal charges were brought. Daniel Biechele, as the man who actually set off the gerbs, pleaded guilty to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter on the 7th of February, 2006. In a statement, he said:
“For three years, I’ve wanted to be able to speak to the people that were affected by this tragedy, but I know that there’s nothing that I can say or do that will undo what happened that night.Since the fire, I have wanted to tell the victims and their families how truly sorry I am for what happened that night and the part that I had in it. I never wanted anyone to be hurt in any way. I never imagined that anyone ever would be.I know how this tragedy has devastated me, but I can only begin to understand what the people who lost loved ones have endured. I don’t know that I’ll ever forgive myself for what happened that night, so I can’t expect anybody else to.I can only pray that they understand that I would do anything to undo what happened that night and give them back their loved ones.I’m so sorry for what I have done, and I don’t want to cause anyone any more pain.I will never forget that night, and I will never forget the people that were hurt by it.
I am so sorry.”
He was sentenced to fifteen years, with four to serve in prison and 11 years suspended, plus three years’ probation, and released on parole in March 2008. Some of the families came forward to support his release. A letter to the parole board from Dave Kane and Joanne O’Neill, whose son Nicholas O’Neill was the youngest victim of the fire, read in part, “In the period following this tragedy, it was Mr. Biechele, alone, who stood up and admitted responsibility for his part in this horrible event… He apologized to the families of the victims and made no attempt to mitigate his guilt.”
Jeff and Michael Derderian, the club’s owners, avoided trial by pleading “no contest”. Jeff Derderian was given a 10-year suspended sentence, three years’ probation, and 500 hours of community service. Michael, who was seen to have had more involvement in the purchase and installation of the flammable foam, was given the same sentence as Biechele. He was released in June 2009 for good behaviour.
This was not the first time that a fire in a nightclub had caused such devastation, and sadly it wouldn’t be the last, either. We trust that the places we go to are safe; that the management have prioritised our lives over their profits, but it’s not always true. So, next time you go on a night out, take a moment just to check where the fire exits are. It could save your life.
Thanks this episode go to:
I’d like to say a special thank you to Patreon supporter Mish Liddle, and to all of you for listening and reading.
Supporting the Great Disasters podcast on Patreon can give you access to exclusive content, including at least one mini-episode per month, and helps the show keep going. The first mini-episode was on the Cavan Orphanage Fire, and the latest is about the Byford Dolphin Incident.
Sources and Further Reading:
Public files from the Attorney General investigation – these have been made available on Google Drive. Most of the witness statements are in the 3rd Phase folder.