RI governor open to seizing 2003 club fire site

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By ERIKA NIEDOWSKI and MICHELLE R. SMITH, Associated Press

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee said Monday he was open to using eminent domain to seize the site of a 2003 nightclub fire that killed 100 people so families of the victims and survivors could build a memorial on it.

The blaze at The Station nightclub in West Warwick on Feb. 20, 2003, was set off when pyrotechnics for the band Great White set fire to flammable foam that lined the club's walls. Three people were convicted in the blaze: club owners Jeffrey and Michael Derderian and Great White tour manager Daniel Biechele, who lit the pyrotechnics.

The Station Fire Memorial Foundation has been working for years to build a permanent memorial on the land, which has hosted a makeshift memorial with homemade crosses and other items, since shortly after the fire. But the land is owned by a private company, and efforts by the foundation to get the owner to donate or sell the land have gone nowhere.

On Sunday, Dave Kane, father of the youngest fire victim, Nicholas O'Neill, called on the state to take the property by eminent domain, after plans were announced to build a "satellite" memorial in neighboring Warwick. Kane said the Warwick memorial will deflect attention from efforts to build a memorial at the fire site.

When asked about Kane's comments, Chafee said he was open to the idea if families unite behind it. Several family members and survivors of the fire told The Associated Press they would support such an effort, although some questioned whether it would be successful.

Chris Fontaine, former head of the memorial foundation, whose 22-year-old son, Mark, died in the fire, said that years ago, she would have opposed such a move by the state because of fears that the families would lose control over what is built there. Now, with the 10-year anniversary of the fire approaching, she is for it "100 percent."

"At this point, after 10 years, I want to see the memorial there," she said. "Whether I have a say in exactly what the plan is or not, I just want it there."

Victoria Eagan, a survivor of the fire and vice president of the memorial foundation, said she had been told that taking the land by eminent domain might not be legally viable. Several families previously asked the town of West Warwick to take it by eminent domain, a request that went nowhere.

Still, Eagan said she believed most families would support securing the land for a memorial in whatever manner it takes, including eminent domain, as long as the land is ultimately turned over for use as a memorial.

"We would love to talk to him about it," she said of the governor. "We tried to get government involved many times over the years. While many people have been supportive to our faces, their hands have been tied. We're at a stalemate."

Eagan said the owner of the land has not responded to dozens of letters, phone calls and petitions. The foundation has raised more than $100,000 and received commitments from labor unions, designers and architects to donate their services to build a memorial, but work can't move forward until they secure the land. Phone messages left Monday by the AP for the family that owns the land were not immediately returned.

Gina Russo, a fire survivor who lost her fiancé in the blaze, said she also doubted whether the site could be taken by eminent domain, but she welcomed any interest by the governor.

"Someone from the government is finally paying attention. I think it's a good thing. Maybe a little light has gone off that someone needs to help us get this accomplished," she said. "To have the governor actually speak of it is really good for us."

Jody King, whose brother Tracy King, a bouncer at the club, died in the fire, has been the driving force behind the memorial in Warwick. He said it would serve as a place of healing away from the site of the horrific fire, which some family members avoid because it is too difficult to visit. But he said he hopes there is eventually a memorial at the site of the club — which he said looks "worse and worse with every day that passes" — and that if the state taking it over by eminent domain helps that happen, he would support it.

"I don't care how it happens; it needs to happen," he said. "It should have happened a long time ago. It's been 10 years and nothing has been done."

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Niedowski reported from Warwick, R.I.

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