Three years ago, after the West Warwick, R.I., nightclub fire claimed the lives of 100 and injured about 200 more, Pollstar asked for commentary from tour management professionals.
With trials unfolding this year, we asked for further insight. Former
Culpability is subjective. One person who has defended Biechele is Jim Baron, columnist for The Pawtucket Times:
“He was the guy who pressed the button (or flipped the switch, whatever it is you do) that set off the pyrotechnics that ignited the foam on the ceiling and walls of the club. That was the extent of his culpability. He did not wrap the entire nightclub in extremely flammable polyurethane foam that flared up in fast-moving flame and choking smoke, emitting cyanide gas as it burned. He did not pack the room far beyond its capacity. He did not issue a fire inspection okey-dokey to a tiny woodframe building where the walls were covered with a substance sometimes called ‘solid gasoline.’ …
“Biechele was a guy doing his job, as he had done it without incident hundreds of times before, in venues across the country, including, a few years earlier, at The Station itself. He didn’t press the button from miles away, not knowing or caring what the result would be; he was in the building himself when he set off the sparks. He very easily could have been one of the people trapped inside, as Great White guitarist Ty Longley was.”
Baron summarily explains how much went wrong that night, and in the months and years prior. But Pollstar asked concert industry insiders for their takes because they might view things differently than the newspapers, courts or public.
Hopefully, there will be no need to further examine the events of February, 20, 2003, unless it is in the context of what we can do in the future to secure our patrons and ourselves.
A little information about the respondents: Patrick Stansfield has toured
“Pyro” Pete Cappadocia is the pyrotechnician for The Rolling Stones and handled the explosive stunts on the first season of magician Criss Angel’s television show.
Karl Kuenning is a road-dog and moderator of Roadie.net.
Ron Schreiner was tour manager for Great White band leader Jack Russell’s solo tour.
Stuart Ross is a tour director and tour accountant, and one of the founders of
I don’t know Dan Biechele or anyone associated with Great White, so I have no dog in this fight.
Dan Biechele went to jail because he pushed the button, but he should have known better. You don’t fire unlicensed pyro anywhere, especially in a club with a low ceiling.
On the other hand, I don’t believe it was his idea to use pyro on this show; it’s likely that it was at the band’s insistence. If my suspicions are correct, the band purchased the pyro charges, decided where in the set they wanted the explosion and where onstage they would stand in order to keep a safe distance. Regardless of how much you need a job, it’s OK to say no to the artist’s demands when they cross the line of safety or sanity.
The band, who directed him (in all probability) to load and set off these charges should be culpable as much as, if not more so, than the tour manager. Biechele took the fall for decisions that were made by his employer. I don’t think he used the “I was only following orders” defense, but that’s exactly what seems to have happened.
The pyro supplier who sold the powder to these unlicensed buyers should also be held responsible. Whomever they purchased the supplies from sold them illegally. Pyro explosives are, I’m told, heavily regulated and only sold to licensed pyrotechnicians, none of whom were involved in designing this effect. If they couldn’t easily buy the explosives, then this disaster wouldn’t have happened.
The club owners, who put flammable foam on the stage walls are also responsible. It’s not just a pyro charge that can set off a flame. Club ceilings are crawling with high temperature lighting instruments, cables and connections, all of which have the ability to fray, arc and ignite.
They saved a few thousand dollars by buying the cheap stuff and 100 people died.
In my opinion, four years is a just sentence for Dan Biechele.
The bottom line is that he was a professional that should have known that the pyro he set up was overshooting the room (15-foot gerb, 8-foot ceiling).
When you are a professional (or have acquired employment based on the assertion that you are expert in the field of pyrotechnics), then your actions (or inactions) have consequences. For me, his greater sin was not having an adequate fire extinguisher at his side so he could have stopped this tragedy before it got started.
The band would only be culpable if and only if the prosecutor could prove they willfully hired Dan Biechele having known he was not an expert in pyrotechnics.
Since Dan had a resume that included setting up and using pyro in his previous gig with WASP, I think that a reasonable person would assume he had the expertise to use pyrotechnics.
Dan was the tour manager and that meant he was in charge of everything relating to equipment and logistics; that’s why the band hired him. The artist can’t be responsible for the details like testing pyro or making sure there are enough fire extinguishers.
Even if Jack Russell or the band had demanded Dan use pyro that night, it would be his responsibility to say “no” if it was unsafe. Those of us in the business know plenty of times when the crew has said “no” to the band in the name of safety.
We’ve all had our run ins with overzealous fire marshals, but this tragedy is an example of why most of these officials take their jobs seriously.
If any Rhode Island fire inspector can be found to be derelict in his duty, he should be fired and sanctioned.
If any money changed hands for “looking the other way” then it would become a criminal matter, but I doubt that is the case.
The families’ longing for justice is understandable. However, it is all too easy to lay the entire blame on the most obvious candidate available, Dan Biechele. It is true, however, that on production matters the buck stops at the tour manager’s door.
He is the only person on the production side with the authority to stop the chain of events that may lead to unsafe conditions and, in this extreme case, tragic results. Artists certainly should prioritize safety to their crew in no uncertain terms. Some do, some do not. Certainly, artists – being an available deep pocket in the chain of liability – will give most of them, their managers and agents, ample motivation to insist on safe shows.
However, the artist and the audience have the right to see the whole production as it was designed and paid for by both of those entities. The pressure to do a “full” show and the old “us versus them” outlaw rock ‘n’ roll mentality also may have been factors.
How many times have we seen fire aisles cleared and fire extinguishers placed for just as long as the fire inspectors are on hand? How many flame-proof certificates are out of date or simply stapled onto different material samples to pass a local inspection?
However, the spinning bottle also points squarely at the club’s owners. If the building is poorly constructed or covered with flammable material, the stage is set for tragedy just as certainly as if they had bolted the fire exits against “pass-ins.”
To say that anecdotes regarding municipal politics in Rhode Island support the “good ol’ boy” theory of exoneration of local officials and the club’s owners doesn’t strain my credulity.
Justice is never perfectly meted, and four years is a long time if you’re serving it. Guilt is lifelong and certainly will torment Mr. Biechele.
The families may have wanted more time on his sentence – who can fault them?
But the other parties involved seem to me to have gotten off with not even a reprimand. Where is the fairness there? Nobody wanted this to occur. Yet it did, and innocent people died in droves.
We must all take away the lesson that when the tough call needs to be made, the production team cannot rely on anyone other than themselves to “do the right thing.”
I was Jack Russell’s tour manager in the fall of 2002 on Jack’s solo “For You” CD tour.
I think Dan got off way too easy. But make no bones about it, Dan’s role was key in the events of that night, but he is not the sole cause of it.
As a tour manager, I can say yes, Dan should have known better. As for the fire codes and laws, they are there for a reason. They are there even moreso now. The TM works for the band, but a good TM isn’t afraid to tell the record label, the band or anyone else no or yes when it is the right call to make.
What is the right call? That depends on many factors such as knowledge, experience, skills, laws, good judgment, etc. Fire me. Send me home. I don’t care… But I’m not putting anyone’s safety at risk. Period.
The club owners can or can’t give permission all day long if they want to, but if it’s against the law and against fire code, their word isn’t worth much. Ignorance of the law is no excuse.
A defense witness at Biechele’s trial said the owners were more responsible for the 100 deaths than the tour manager because they allegedly knew they had placed flammable materials on the walls as sound proofing. But this is part of the blame game tactic to avoid responsibility and accountability. What if someone had tossed a cigarette and the place started on fire? Would those companies be held liable?
Jack’s not responsible and neither is the band. However, the alleged misconduct of certain official entities may warrant some looking into.
Of course I don’t have any proof, but an investigation by federal agencies would seem prudent.
After all, who inspected the building and when? That’s just for starters on some of the questions that need to be asked and answered truthfully.
“Pyro” Pete Cappadocia:
I could take either side and argue the hell out of it.
I do flame tests – when they give me material and even though there’s a flame certificate on it, I’ll still do a test. I’ve lit backdrops on fire, bands’ signs on fire.
Any pyro guy who says he hasn’t lit anything on fire is a liar. It happens. It happens all the time.
Whether a fan threw a T-shirt onstage and you didn’t see that it was halfway in front of a pyro device or whether somebody laid a backline or a towel over an amp and it was right next to a flame device, or if they open the load-in door and the wind blows the curtain the same time you’re shooting pyro and the curtain goes in front of the device – it happens.
It’s just that when you’re a pro and you have a pyro crew you can put it out when it’s still small and nobody even knows it happened.
But I didn’t start off doing the Stones. I started off pretty much illegally, doing pyro for bands who couldn’t afford to do it the right way. That could have been me 20 years ago. It could have been, I dunno, 80 to 90 percent of the pyro guys today.
I don’t know what Dan’s background is. I don’t know where Dan got the product. In California, if there’s an incident and they found the product, they’ll trace that piece back to who bought it legally – and the last person who owned it legally is also responsible for it because he was the one who was responsible for either using it responsibly or destroying it.
My question was, whatever happened to that end of the legal system? Did they not care where he got it from? Care how he got it? That’s one end of the trial I was actually looking forward to, seeing how they would deal with that. Obviously, they chose to just not deal with it.
It was easier to blame the guy they had than to see where he got it from and whoever gave it to him shouldn’t have given it to him, and whoever gave it to him shouldn’t have. It seemed that, “Hey, we got this guy, it’s going to be his fault, let’s go to trial now.”
There’s still kids out there and magicians out there buying a couple of flashpots. If anything got adversely affected (by this tragedy), I hope that’s what got adversely affected.
If I was to detach myself, he got off pretty light for the number of laws that were broken, for the number of things that he did.
He broke interstate commerce shipping, he broke DOT trucking laws, he broke local and federal transportation laws, he broke local laws for the usage, federal laws for the usage. All that got swept aside for the 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter.
If they went after every independent violation – storage, usage, transportation – he might have gotten a longer sentence.
Is he a scapegoat? Yes. You had asked me, “Should he as a road manager know it takes more than permission of the venue to bring pyrotechnics into a club?”
As a road manager, his knowledge of pyrotechnics should be limited. The question should have been, “As a pyrotechnician, should he have known?”
That’s the other thing. If he was a pyrotechnician, he should have known. When a band hires me, I don’t expect the road manager, the production manager or anybody to be as up on all the laws as I am or my company is.
He should have known. Him pressing the button, it was his responsibility.
Anybody who’s been in the business for any amount of time knows they can’t just ask the club owner for permission. It’s like asking, “Can you serve me a bunch of drinks and can I drive home drunk?” That was all finger-pointing and band aids.
The blame should have been a little more spread out. Everybody got to play dumb and point at the guy who pressed the button. Did he get off light? Yes and no. If you lost a loved one, he got off very light, but no one wants to spend four years in prison.
If it was Dan’s Pyro Company and they hired him, he would be 100 percent at fault, but it wasn’t like that. They said, “Hey, we want some pyro” and it was all done under the table.
And you’ve seen foam at every recording studio on the planet, so when you see it, you assume it’s the right stuff.