Station Nightclub Fire: 10 years of remembrances

Feb 20, 2013

February 20th marks the tenth anniversary of the Station Nightclub fire, which killed 100 people who flocked to a West Warwick roadhouse one cold Thursday night for some live rock music. The fire also left more than 200 people hospitalized, many with disfiguring injuries. Here's a look back on the deadliest rock concert in American history and the lives it changed.

Four times a day Linda Fisher applies moisturizing lotion to the scars that run from her shoulders to her fingers. She suffered second and third degree burns over 30 percent of her body in the Station nightclub fire.
"I have a hard time sensing if I'm hot or cold,” says Fisher. “I can get overheated very quickly and not realize it and be very sick.  Or if I'm not paying attention I can get cold like to the core where I'm shaking because I didn't realize how cold I was because I don't feel the sensation on my arms."

Fisher was one of 462 people who crowded into West Warwick's Station Nightclub on February 20th, 2003 to hear the heavy metal rock group "Great White."  The band had just started its opening song "Desert Moon" when tour manager Dan Biechele set off pyrotechnics on stage. The sparks set fire to highly flammable soundproofing foam that covered the club's ceiling and walls.

Paul Bertolo, a Brockton, Massachusetts auto mechanic, remembers the sounds of the dying as he escaped through a window.  
"It was havoc. The smoke was really intense. A lot of people were screaming. A lot of people were saying 'I don't want to die this way,” Bertolo recalls.

Some patrons initially thought the fire was part of the act. But as the truth dawned they made a mad dash for the exits. There were four doors but most people headed towards the front door through which they had entered. The stampede caused a pile of bodies to form from floor to ceiling.

Gina Russo, the mother of two young sons, found herself in that pile until someone pulled her out. "I'm burned over 40 percent of my body,” Russo explains in a matter of fact tone. “The burns on my arms and back are 3rd degree and my head was burned 4th degree so my head burned right to the skull. I'll never have my own hair. I have to wear a wig for the rest of my life.  And then my lungs were actually worse than my burns. Three days after the fire I was read the last rights because my lungs were shutting down and all my internal organs were shutting down. I'm very blessed to be alive."

News of the fire shot around the world because it had been videotaped. Station nightclub co-owner Jeffrey Derderian was also a reporter at WPRI channel 12. That night he had a videographer in the club taping pictures for a story on nightclub safety.

Dave Kane, whose 18 year old son, Nicholas O'Neill, would be the youngest person to die in the fire, rushed to West Warwick when he saw it on the news. Unable to get close to the scene, he went to Rhode Island Hospital where many of the victims had been taken.

"I actually heard a guy in the waiting room of Rhode Island Hospital saying how many people had died and I thought this guy was just trying to be important,” says Kane. “He was saying that all kinds of people had died and the whole building was blown down. He described what actually had been the case but at the time we didn't know it. And I just thought this guy was exaggerating."

In the ensuing weeks and months Rhode Islanders learned there was plenty of blame to go around. The owners of the club, brothers Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, had routinely allowed the use of pyrotechnics without a permit or licensed operator as required by law. The capacity of the club was 404 but on the night of the fire nearly 500 people were admitted. And West Warwick fire marshal Denis Larcoque told a grand jury he didn't notice the flammable foam that was installed to suppress neighborhood noise complaints. Rhode Island law required then, and still does, fire resistant decorations to be used in places of public accommodation.

Fire survivor Paul Bertolo says Larocque should have been prosecuted. "I've always blamed the fire inspectors basically for not doing their job,” says Bertolo. “If they know there was stuff in the wall that shouldn't have been there that's their job. A lot of people do stupid things and try to save money. But that's why you pay inspectors to do their job. “

Burn victim Gina Russo shares the same feeling about Larocque. "If you saw this foam and I don't know how anyone didn't see it. It was there. It was painted black on the walls. How do you pretend you don't see that? It's amazing to me that these professional people who hold some sort of degree in this all looked the other way."
Larocque has since retired on a disability claim and isn’t commenting on the 10th anniversary.

John Barylick, who represented many of the victims and went on to write the definitive account of the tragedy in the book "Killer Show" says the tragedy was the result of a lot of people not doing their jobs.

"In incidents like this,” says Barylick, “one person doing the right thing can usually avoid the tragedy, whether it be an inspector or someone complying with fireworks ordinances, something like that. In this case, as some have said, it was a perfect storm. Many small mistakes were made and they were usually mistakes of omission, usually motivated by profit or laziness."

Only two people would go to jail and not for very long. Band manager Dan Biechele, who set off the fireworks, served two years of a four year sentence. And club co-owner Michael Derderian served two years and three months of a four year sentence before being paroled for good behavior. Brother Jeffrey Derderian got off with only community service and neither brother has ever paid a cent of his own money to settle the many claims that emanated from the fire, though they may still be held liable for a one million dollar fine for not carrying workers compensation insurance. Survivors and victims' families ultimately shared in a $176 million settlement from defendants as diverse as Channel 12 to Anheuser Busch.

The fire has also changed survivors' lives. Russo, who lost her fiance in the blaze but has since married, says she likes her post fire life better than her pre-fire existence.
"I love my life. I'm strong. I'm confident. It hasn't stopped me, that's for sure. It's made me stronger. It's made we want to fight for people who have disabilities,” says Russo.

And through therapy Linda Fisher has come to accept the burn scars that require frequent moisturizing.
"Anytime you're disfigured it's a choice,” explains Fisher. “You need to decide how you're going to see yourself because how you see yourself it does translate through your actions and how you approach people, how you carry yourself. I made a choice that I'm going to accept this because for one I'm lucky I even have scarred hands and arms. I have friends that are missing those parts of their body and my heart breaks for them."

The site of the fire today is a rag-tag collection of weather worn crosses, balloons, flowers, teddy bears and burned out candles. But that's about to change. Last fall the owner of the land deeded the property over to the Station Fire Memorial Foundation for a permanent park. Last Sunday ground was broken on the project.

Rhode Island's fire code was strengthened as a result of the fire. Sprinklers became mandatory for all nightclubs that hold more than 150 people. Crowd crisis training is now required of employees in most large commercial establishments . But if there's anything the Station fire taught us it's that laws are only as good as the people enforcing them.

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