The Station 10 Years Later

Feb. 20 arrives amid crashing meteors, explosions in North Korea and a retiring pope. It arrives a month after 230 people died in a nightclub fire in Brazil. And it marks the 10-year anniversary of a fire that could have, in a better world, lessened that tragedy.

Photo: AP Photo / Steven Senne
The site of The Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, R.I., could become a permanent memorial.

Mourners for those killed in The Station nightclub fire stand among makeshift memorials on the site of the fire in West Warwick, R.I., three days before its 10th anniversary, Feb. 20.

Ten years ago, a band officially called Jack Russell’s Great White played roadhouse bar The Station in West Warwick, R.I. They were into the opening chords of “Desert Moon” when tour manager Dan Biechele fired off some pyro gerbs. It was an intro that the band had done at several other tour stops – although it may never be clear if other club owners permitted it.

The two bluish spirals of sparks were less than spectacular, even laughable. But the hot sparks ignited flammable foam on the back wall, which ignited foam on the ceiling, which kindled an old, wooden roof.

“Wow, this isn’t good,” Russell said, and tried to put out the flames with water from his squirt bottle. A fire extinguisher – which, according to standard operating procedure, should have been in Biechele’s hand before he launched the pyro – was missing. The crowd seemed mesmerized, and on video a man at the front of the stage is seen gesturing for the crowd to wake up, to move back.

The crowd slowly, then quickly, moved toward the front door, resulting in a bottleneck. Some mistakenly moved toward the bathrooms. The man who made the gesture died in the fire, which took 100 souls.

The band members exited through a stage door. Russell asked if anyone was hurt – not realizing that a band member, Ty Longley, was inside, dead, and that many of the 230 injured were wandering the snowy hillsides in shock.

Biechele and co-owner Michael Derderian were sentenced to 15 years in prison – four years to serve, 11 years suspended plus three years’ probation for involuntary manslaughter. Michael’s brother Jeffrey, the other co-owner, received a 10-year suspended sentence. Evidence showed the brothers had purchased the flammable foam.

Now, after every possible culprit was sued and all payouts made to victims and their families, the citizens of West Warwick are still struggling to raise $1 million to $1.5 million to build a memorial on the site of The Station. A benefit show, featuring Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider, is scheduled for March 8. The present and former governors of Rhode Island are expected to be in attendance.

Photo: AP Photo / Steven Senne
The site of The Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, R.I., could become a permanent memorial.

The Boston Globe has been running articles questioning if some people got away Scott-free – namely West Warwick’s chief fire inspector at the time, Denis Larocque, and Russell. Larocque signed off on the unsafe conditions of the club, and kept raising its capacity, from 258 to 404. The Station, when it was converted from a restaurant to a nightclub, required sprinklers and Larocque didn’t note that, according to the Globe.

He left the job in 2006 because of a job-related injury and continues to draw disability checks. The fire inspector may not have been charged because it would have opened the floodgates to government liability, according to John Barylick, attorney for victims’ families and author of a book on the tragedy, “Killer Show.”

As for Russell, whose health continues to decline, it’s not so much culpability as it is a lack of contrition, as victims’ families see it.

“He never even apologized” for his role in the disaster, Gina Russo told the Globe. Russo survived the fire with severe burns; her fiancé died from it. Russell didn’t help matters when he “talked about the band’s upcoming summer tour even while The Station burned before his eyes,” the Globe said.

Russell said he “would just sit for hours and cry” after the event, but would not tell the paper whether he felt partially responsible for the deaths. He was seen about town that day, handing out free tickets to the show, which raised the number of people in the room.

He tried to raise money for the memorial, but his benefit show was dismissed by victims’ families.

“We feel the upset caused by his involvement would outweigh the amount of funds raised,” a statement from the Station Fire Memorial Foundation said.

Photo: AP Photo
Charred drums sit on a shelf inside a warehouse in Cranston, R.I., used to house evidence retrieved from The Station nightclub fire.

Russell went ahead anyway, playing the Saint Rocke near Los Angeles. About 30 people showed and it raised about $180, according to the Globe.