Ten years ago today, concert pyrotechnics turned an overpacked Rhode Island roadhouse into a fire trap that killed or injured nearly three fourths of the 462 people in attendance.
When it happened, the fire at the Station nightclub was the deadliest nightclub fire in the United States in nearly three decades. U.S. News detailed the fire's aftermath a year later, while the incident was still simmering and the details still being sorted through.
As the story below details, the trouble began just seconds into rock band Great White's performance, when pyrotechnics gone awry ignited the club's walls. Within a minute the place was choked in smoke and fully ablaze. One hundred people died and another 230 were injured from flames, smoke, and trampling feet that night.
In the decade since the story was written, the court cases have been settled, the regulations passed, and the jail times served.
The Station's two owners and the band manager who set up the pyrotechnics were sentenced on criminal charges (all three have since been released from prison). Civil settlements or donations now tally in the tens of millions, while the sprinkler requirements and fire code provisions enacted as a result remain in place in Rhode Island and across the United States.
But nightclub fires remain a danger. In January, almost 10 years to the month of the Station fire, a nightclub fire in Brazil erupted under nearly the same circumstances: A band's pyrotechnics ignited flammable soundproofing foam. The fire killed 238 party-goers, according to Reuters, making it the third-deadliest nightclub fire ever. In December 2009, the same scenario at a nightclub in Perm, Russia, left 160 dead.
On Sunday, the survivors of the Station fire and their families gathered for a 10th anniversary service. Amid concerts and speakers, the Station Fire Memorial Foundation offered final plans for a permanent memorial on the land, now marked by handmade crosses in the ground.
This story originally appeared in the Feb. 16, 2004, issue of U.S. News & World Report.
Looking For Answers in the Ashes
By Angie Cannon
A year after the horrific nightclub fire in Rhode Island, life is utterly changed
WEST WARWICK, R.I.—They came mostly from Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. It was your basic American night out, a few hours of thumping rock-and-roll, getting down at a gritty roadhouse. This particular night was a Thursday, almost a year ago. The draw was Great White, an '80s-era metal band. The club was the Station, a ramshackle joint in this faded mill town 10 miles down the road from Providence. At 11 p.m. last February 20, just into its opening song, the band lit up the fireworks that were part of its regular act—and all hell broke loose. Sparks ignited the soundproofing foam on the walls. In three minutes, the club was a raging inferno.
The blaze at the Station would become the fourth-worst nightclub fire in U.S. history, the eighth-worst fire in America in nearly 85 years. One hundred people died. More than 200 were injured. Many were working-class men and women, just out for a good time. The dead included a tattoo artist, a landscaper, a plasterer, a truck driver, a quality-control inspector. Sixty-five children lost a parent; one child lost both.
A year later, the fire's painful reverberations have not ended. Today, about 100 crosses are planted crookedly across the empty lot where the Station used to be, a collective makeshift shrine. Rhode Island has imposed a tough new fire code. Indictments have been issued, and civil lawsuits loom. Damage claims could reach $1 billion.
There's plenty of blame to go around. Victims' families say the club's owners, Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, cut corners, overpacked the club with patrons, used cheap foam as soundproofing, and carried no workers' compensation insurance, for which the state fined them more than $1 million. Many cite town inspectors for failing to take note of the flammable foam and do something about it. Others blame the use of pyrotechnics by Great White—which toured last year to raise money for the victims.
In this small state, where it seems as if everyone knew someone whose life was changed by the fire, the wounds are raw, the hurt deep. "It's still very, very fresh," says Gov. Donald Carcieri. "It's a very, very deep vulnerability and sadness." The injured are recovering slowly, and some are still in terrible pain. Those who lost friends and family are struggling to fill the void. "My religion says to forgive," says William Bonardi, 76, whose 36-year-old son, Billy, perished in the fire. "But this was a needless tragedy. We pray a lot and hope he is in a better place. But you wonder how God could take an only child." How and why? A year later, for many here, the questions remain hopelessly unanswered.
'SHE WAS MY COMFORT ZONE'
Richard Rakoski, 35, has always seen himself as a pretty tough guy, but in the past year his strength has been tested in ways he never could have imagined. Last February, he was an MP in Afghanistan. That's where he was when he spoke to his wife, Terry, by phone. She was going to the Station for a girls' night out with her sister and a friend. Rakoski would have preferred that his wife stay home, but with him away, on the far side of the world, there was no talking her out of it.
There was no talking Terry out of much of anything, really. She was 30, full of life—an '80s rock fiend, semiprofessional pool player, skydiver, and Stephen King junkie. By day, she was a quality-control inspector—the perfect job for an obsessively organized woman who had her Christmas shopping done in February. Just a few years ago, Rakoski had fallen in love with her photo, which he saw at her father's house in Massachusetts. He ran down the hall, chirping, "I'm going to marry her." When they met, Rakoski knew instantly she was the one. When his Massachusetts National Guard unit was activated, they moved up the wedding to June 29, 2002. Rakoski shipped out on July 7.
After the fire, it took Rakoski 38 hours to get home on military transport planes, still not knowing his wife's fate. When he finally got back, Rakoski was told he had lost five people in the fire: Terry; her sister, Tina; her friend Kris Carbone; Rakoski's friend Shawn Sweet and his girlfriend, Laura Gillett. "Five good, honest, hardworking people," Rakoski says, weeping openly. "I blame myself for not being there. I blame the building inspector. I blame the fire inspector. I blame the band. How do they lay their heads on their pillows at night?"
A month after the fire, Rakoski got a job hauling lumber at Home Depot. He lasted five days. People's questions were too painful. Now he just stays home. He drinks. He hasn't spoken to a therapist, though he recently did get as far as picking up the phone. "Who do you trust?" he asks. He's down to his last pennies. He would love to work but just can't. He sells things, like gold chains, for a few bucks. And he tries to provoke a response from Terry by doing things that irritated her—like moving things around the house. He's waiting for her to move them back.
A year later, he thinks the politicians just want the whole thing over. "If this had been the Waldorf-Astoria, heads would be rolling now," he says. "No one knew who Terry was. They think we are just small people, but we are the people who pray every night and who go to bed every night asking, 'What happened?'"
He takes sleeping pills but finds no comfort in slumber. "I dream about what could have been," he says. Once he had wanted to be a state trooper. "I don't want to do anything now," he says. "I don't have passion for anything anymore." But Rakoski knows he needs to find something new. "Maybe," he says, "I'll become a fire inspector."
'I STILL HAD A JOB TO DO'
Joe Kinan celebrated a major victory the other day—he kicked off his slippers by himself. The little things most of the rest of us take for granted are big accomplishments for Kinan. Standing up. Walking. Going to the bathroom alone. "He fights every day," says his fiancee, Maureen Sullivan. "He doesn't complain. Every step is a big step."
Kinan, 35, went down to the Station that Thursday night with his longtime buddy, Karla Bagtaz, 41. When the fire started, he wrapped her in his leather vest, thinking it would protect her. It didn't. She died in the flames. Kinan watched his own body burn, but somehow he never lost consciousness. "I pretty much screamed," he says, "through the whole thing." Wedged beneath a pile of bodies, he thought about giving up. "I was telling myself to throw in the towel," he recalls, speaking with difficulty because of the thick scar tissue. "But as soon as I said it, I changed my mind. I knew I still had a job to do—to be a father and a husband."
On January 6, after 320 days in Massachusetts General, then Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, Kinan went home. More than a few times, his family thought he wouldn't make it.
But he has. The amateur bodybuilder has undergone 70 different surgeries, some as long as 16 hours. There have been operations to close his eyes and operations to close his head, though it still isn't closed completely. Kinan has lost his fingers, part of his nose, and both ears. He lost his left eye, and his right is damaged, too. His legs are a patchwork where doctors have removed healthy skin to replace dead skin. Sometimes it's hard for him to eat. Even so, Kinan has never been one to feel sorry for himself. He may have to undergo as many as 70 more surgeries, but if that's what it takes, he says, that's what he'll do.
The bills, of course, have been enormous, well into the millions of dollars. But his job, taking measurements for tuxedos, provided no health insurance. He now has coverage through Massachusetts's insurance program, MassHealth. Sullivan wanted him home, where physical and occupational therapists and visiting nurses tend to him daily. "He hasn't gone through all of this," she says, "to be put in a nursing home and forgotten. He needs to be a man and back on his feet." The couple have exhausted their savings, but Sullivan, 34, hopes to return to work as a nurse soon.
Kinan's goal of being a father and husband has kept him alive. Sullivan's faith is unshakable. "This is the guy I fell in love with," she says. "This just happens to be the suit he is wearing right now."
AN ACCIDENT OR A CRIME?
A day after the fire, the new Rhode Island attorney general, Democrat Patrick Lynch, promised on national television to "overturn every rock and every snowflake" to determine whether crimes were committed. A grand jury convened six days after the blaze. About nine months later, on December 9, the panel indicted Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, the Station's owners, and Great White tour manager Daniel Biechele. Each was charged with 200 counts of involuntary manslaughter—100 counts alleging criminal negligence and 100 counts alleging misdemeanor manslaughter. The Derderians are accused of installing the foam in 2000. Biechele allegedly broke state pyrotechnics law. Each count carries up to 30 years in prison. All have pleaded not guilty.
The Derderian brothers bought the club in 2000—Michael, a businessman, and Jeffrey, a local boy who made good as a Boston TV reporter, then came home to a Providence station. Jeffrey was at the Station the night of the fire, filming a report about nightclub safety following a fatal stampede in Chicago a few days earlier. He escaped, but the horror of the leaping flames in the packed room was captured on tape. The Derderians have said that Great White didn't have permission to set off the pyrotechnics; the band's attorney says it did.
Before the December press conference to announce the charges, Lynch, 39, met privately with several hundred survivors and victims' families. Things got ugly fast when the crowd realized only three people were being charged. They yelled and cursed at Lynch. What about the fire and building inspectors? The band? Why did the charges cover only those who died?
Lynch felt the anger keenly. Rhode Island criminal law, he said, did not exist to cover the injured. So in January, he proposed legislation making it a crime to cause injury through negligence. Some legal observers say Lynch was overreaching. With regard to the inspectors, Lynch says, state law shields municipal officials if they perform their duties without malice.
As for the three defendants, prosecutors don't have to prove they intended to cause the deaths. But to prove criminal negligence, they must show that the defendants knew of a deadly risk and ignored it. Things like poor exits, the flammable foam, and overcrowding, Lynch says, indicate "extreme disregard for human life." Proving the misdemeanor manslaughter counts may be easier; it requires showing only that a defendant's underlying action was a misdemeanor that caused the deaths.
Biechele's lawyer, Tom Briody, said: "We remain confident that a full and fair trial process will lead to his exoneration." Michael Derderian's lawyer, Kathleen Hagerty, said: "We don't believe there are facts and evidence that would support a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt."
Either way, a trial may still be two years away because of a protracted discovery process. "This is a difficult road," Lynch says, "that starts a new, painful chapter."
A SLEW OF LAWSUITS
About a month after the fire, after the attorney general was done with the crime scene, the town ordered what was left of the Station demolished. But veteran Providence trial lawyers Max Wistow and Mark Mandell had other ideas; they petitioned a state judge to allow them to take possession of the property, pay for full-time security, and look for evidence. Most unusual of all: The two respected lawyers hadn't filed any lawsuits yet—they still haven't, in fact—though they do have clients. "We needed a meticulous, exhaustive inquiry," says Wistow, 61.
The Station fire is the kind of catastrophe that produces a mountain of lawsuits—complex cases with hundreds of plaintiffs and a raft of defendants. One suit lists 30 defendants, including the Derderians, the band members, the building owners, the foam distributor and manufacturers, West Warwick and its fire inspector, and Rhode Island and its fire marshal. At least seven suits have been filed. More are expected before the three-year statutory deadline expires.
Legal experts believe that holding people accountable may be easier in civil court. The problem, however, is that the main defendants—the Derderians, the town, and the foam distributor—don't appear to have substantial resources: maybe $ 10 million total in insurance, according to lawyers. So Wistow and Mandell's move to preserve the nightclub was an attempt to learn everything they could about the fire—and all possible parties at fault. In March, the judge granted their request, and the lawyers rented a 4,000-square-foot warehouse to hold some 717 items, including bar stools, drums, and foam. Then they essentially put parts of the club back together, right down to the stage. They hired fire experts and chemists to study it. The cost so far: about $500,000.
The investigation is aimed at answering some key questions: Who manufactured the foam? Was it labeled as flammable? Did it give off toxic gases? The lawyers are also looking at other products that might have contributed to the fire. Mandell, 54, says that more than anything else, clients want to know why the fire occurred. "There was an attitude of going-along-to-get-along, financial greed, callousness, and carelessness," says Mandell. "But people so desperately want to believe there has to be more meaning than that."
In May, the state judge who awarded Wistow and Mandell access to the site named them interim lead counsel overseeing a committee of lawyers pursuing fire-related cases; Patrick Jones of Boston was named interim associate counsel. In August, however, a federal judge essentially put the civil litigation on hold because of a dispute over jurisdiction. A new federal law that took effect 18 days before the fire made it easier for cases to be heard in federal court if an accident causes at least 75 deaths. Some parties wanted a federal court to preside; others preferred a state court. A ruling is expected soon, but the cases will take years nonetheless.
TOWARD INCREASED FIRE SAFETY
Mechanical engineer William Grosshandler has been studying the science of fires for 25 years. But a year ago, he was "dumbstruck" that so many people could die so quickly in such a very small place. "This was a once-in-a-generation event," he says. But the Station, he figured, couldn't possibly be the only nightclub where conditions were ripe for disaster.
Grosshandler is the chief of fire research at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, an agency within the Commerce Department. Two years ago, President Bush authorized NIST to investigate building failures, and Grosshandler, 58, now leads a NIST team doing a scientific investigation into the fire at the Station. At a large research lab in suburban Maryland, the team is conducting experiments and developing computer models to learn from the Rhode Island fire. In a hangarlike building under a device that looks like a giant oven hood, the engineers more or less rebuilt the Station's stage using flammable foam, and in early September, they lit a fire on both sides of the drummer's platform. After just a minute, flames engulfed the dance floor. The heat was enough to ignite the wall and floor—a phenomenon known as "flashover"—at one minute, 10 seconds. At one minute, 30 seconds, the room filled with smoke.
Among the scientists' questions: Why did the building fail? How did people respond during the evacuation? How did rescuers perform? Their goal is to recommend possible changes to both building practices and model codes by offering scientific evidence to show whether various measures—such as sprinklers—improve safety. NIST's final report was expected this spring, but it could be delayed by pending budget cuts. Nevertheless, NIST officials say they are committed to the project.
Rhode Island and other states didn't wait for the scientific evidence. Last July, Governor Carcieri, a Republican, signed sweeping changes to the state fire code. Now, establishments with occupancy of at least 150 must have sprinklers by mid-2006. Larger places need them by mid-2005. By July 1, 2004, they must reduce their maximum occupancy by 20 percent until they install sprinklers. An important provision goes into effect February 20: eliminating the grandfather exemption, meaning older buildings must also comply. Connecticut also passed new penalties, and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney proposed sprinklers in clubs of 50 people or more. In July, the National Fire Protection Association issued similar sprinkler guidelines.
Still, many Rhode Island business owners are chafing as they scramble to meet the new code requirements. "I know 100 people died. It was a tragedy," says Bob Correia, co-owner of a banquet facility in West Warwick. "But it's the old thing—let's rush in and pass all these laws. The politicians wanted to create the safest state, and all we have now is the most confused state."
'I WILL MAKE IT!'
How do you make something good out of ashes? Gina Russo is trying to figure that out. Three days after the fire, doctors told her family they didn't think she'd make it. She had serious burns over 40 percent of her body, and her lungs were seared. Her 10-year-old son, Alex, had an angry conversation with God in the hospital chapel, then announced, "My mother will be fine. She will live."
Russo, 36, did live, but her back, shoulders, and arms were badly burned. Her head had fourth-degree burns, which sear muscle and bone. Her dark brown hair will never grow back. She lost her left ear. She spent 113 days in three different hospitals and still has rehab three days a week—painful treatments to soften her scars. It could take a decade for her lungs to heal. In March, she will have reconstructive surgery to straighten her neck. Doctors will also create a new ear with cartilage from her ribs and skin from her leg.
Besides her own injuries, Russo lost her fiance, Freddy Crisostomi. "One minute he was behind me," she says, weeping, "and then you wake up and everything is gone." Today, Russo, a former medical secretary and mother of two boys, approaches life with new conviction. "I'm so determined to have a normal life and to make it the best possible," she says. "I want to raise my boys to be strong, independent children. I'm more determined to make life good. I will make it!"
She also vows to make sure something like this never happens again. "The politicians have forgotten this," she says. "They want it to go away." But what she really wants—of the Derderians, the band, and the local inspectors—is this: "I just want one of them to say, 'I'm sorry, and we screwed up.'"