Number of deaths
20 February 2003
Cocoanut Grove fire, Kiss nightclub fire, Lame Horse fire
The Station nightclub fire occurred on Thursday, February 20, 2003, in West Warwick, Rhode Island. The fire was caused by pyrotechnics set off by the tour manager of the evening's headlining band Great White, which ignited plastic foam used as sound insulation in the walls and ceilings surrounding the stage. A fast-moving fire with intense black smoke engulfed the club in 5½ minutes. Video footage of the fire shows its ignition, rapid growth, the billowing smoke that quickly made escape impossible, and the exit blockage that further hindered evacuation. The toxic smoke, heat and the stampede of people toward the exits killed 100; 230 were injured and another 132 escaped uninjured. Many of the survivors developed posttraumatic stress disorder as a result of psychological trauma.
- Band managers trial
- Biechele sentencing and statement
- Biecheles parole support
- Nightclub owners trial
- Civil settlements
It was the fourth-deadliest nightclub fire in US history, killing 100 people, and the second deadliest in New England, surpassed by the 1942 Cocoanut Grove fire which resulted in 492 deaths. Because it was a high-casualty fire caused by illegal indoor usage of outdoor fireworks, the 2003 disaster is similar to the 2004 República Cromañón nightclub fire in Buenos Aires, Argentina; the 2008 Wuwang Club fire in Shenzhen, China; the 2009 Santika Club fire in Watthana, Bangkok, Thailand (cause is disputed); the 2009 Lame Horse fire in Perm, Russia; the 2013 Kiss nightclub fire in Santa Maria, Brazil, and the 2015 Colectiv nightclub fire in Bucharest, Romania.
The fire started just seconds into the band's opening song, their 1991 Billboard Mainstream Rock hit "Desert Moon", when pyrotechnics set off by tour manager Daniel Biechele ignited flammable acoustic foam on both sides and the top centre of the drummer's alcove at the back of the stage. The pyrotechnics were gerbs, cylindrical devices that produce a controlled spray of sparks. Biechele used three gerbs set to spray sparks 15 feet (4.6 m) for 15 seconds. Two gerbs were at 45-degree angles, with the middle one pointing straight up. The flanking gerbs became the principal cause of the fire. The foam was installed in two layers, with highly flammable urethane foam above polyethylene foam, the latter being difficult to ignite but releasing much more heat once ignited by the less dense urethane. Burning polyurethane foam instantly develops opaque, aggressive, dark smoke along with deadly carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide gas when burning. Inhaling this smoke only 2-3 times would cause rapid loss of consciousness and eventually, death by internal suffocation.
The flames were initially thought to be part of the act (the song's music video clearly shows flames blazing around the musicians); only as the fire reached the ceiling and smoke began to bank down did people realize it was uncontrolled. Twenty seconds after the pyrotechnics ended, the band stopped playing and lead vocalist Jack Russell calmly remarked into the microphone, "Wow... that's not good." In less than a minute, the entire stage was engulfed in flames, with most of the band members and entourage fleeing for the west exit by the stage.
By this time, the nightclub's fire alarm had been activated, and although there were four possible exits, most people headed for the front door through which they had entered. The ensuing stampede led to a crush in the narrow hallway leading to that exit, quickly blocking the exit completely and resulting in numerous deaths and injuries among the patrons and staff. A total of 462 people were in attendance, even though the club's official licensed capacity was 404. One hundred lost their lives, and about half of the survivors were injured, either from burns, smoke inhalation, thermal trauma, or trampling. Among those who perished in the fire were Jack Russell's Great White's lead guitarist, Ty Longley, and the show's emcee, WHJY DJ Mike "The Doctor" Gonsalves. There is reason to believe that Longley and Gonsalves tried to salvage equipment during the early stage of the fire and lost valuable time to escape before dense, toxic smoke made breathing near impossible at zero visibility. Longley is believed to have initially made it out of the building but then re-entered in an attempt to rescue his guitar. Furthermore, a number of survivors later stated that a bouncer stopped people trying to escape via the stage exit, stating that that door was "for the band only."
The fire, from its inception, was caught on videotape by cameraman Brian Butler for WPRI-TV of Providence, and the beginning of that tape was released to national news stations. Butler was there for a planned piece on nightclub safety being reported by Jeffrey A. Derderian, a WPRI news reporter who was also a part-owner of The Station. WPRI-TV would later be cited for conflict of interest in having a reporter do a report concerning his own property. The report had been inspired by the E2 nightclub stampede in Chicago that had claimed 21 lives only three days earlier. At the scene of the fire, Butler gave this account of the tragedy:
Thousands of mourners attended a memorial service at St. Gregory the Great Church in Warwick on February 24, 2003, to remember those lost in the fire. Following the tragedy, Governor Donald Carcieri declared a moratorium on pyrotechnic displays at venues that hold fewer than 300 people.
Five months after the fire, Great White started a benefit tour, saying a prayer at the beginning of each concert for the friends and families affected by the incident and giving a portion of the proceeds to the Station Family Fund. In 2003, and again in 2005, the band stated they had not performed the song "Desert Moon" since the tragedy. "I don't think I could ever sing that song again," said lead vocalist and founder Jack Russell, while guitarist Mark Kendall stated "We haven't played that song. Things that bring back memories of that night we try to stay away from. And that song reminds us of that night. We haven't played it since then and probably never will." By 2009 the band had resumed performing the song.
Two years to the day after the fire, band members Jack Russell and Mark Kendall, along with Great White’s attorney, Ed McPherson, appeared on Larry King Live with three survivors of the fire and the father of Ty Longley, to discuss how their lives had changed since the incident.
Following the fire, Great White split into two separate groups, one led by Russell and the other by Kendall. Neither version of the band performed in any of the six New England states for over a decade. Russell's group made its first New England appearance in 12 years at a harvest festival in Mechanic Falls, Maine in August 2015.
The site of the fire was cleared, and a multitude of crosses were placed as memorials, left by loved ones of the deceased. On May 20, 2003, nondenominational services began to be held at the site of the fire for a number of months. Access remains open to the public, and memorial services are held each February 20.
In June 2003, the Station Fire Memorial Foundation (SFMF) was formed with the purpose of purchasing the property, to build and maintain a memorial. In September 2012 the owner of the land, Ray Villanova, donated the site to the SFMF. By April 2016, $1.65 million of the $2 million fundraising goal had been achieved and construction of the memorial had commenced. As of October 2016, the SFMF anticipates the memorial park will open sometime in the spring of 2017.
In the days after the fire, there were considerable efforts to assign and avoid blame on the part of the band, the nightclub owners, the manufacturers and distributors of the foam material and pyrotechnics, and the concert promoters. Through attorneys, club owners said they did not give permission to the band to use pyrotechnics. Band members claimed they had permission.
While investigators focused on the foam material that had been installed behind the stage, claiming the foam was intended for use in packaging and product display, testimony available to the public contradicts this. Testimony by Barry Warner, the salesman from American Foam who sold the foam to the Derderians, confirmed that there was a sales order for high-density acoustic soundproofing foam. Chemical analysis of the actual foam that was in the nightclub on the evening of the fire was never released to the public. A roll of foam confiscated from the basement of the nightclub after the fire was removed by the ATF but the testing done on that specific foam was never released to the public. Witnesses to the fire reported that once ignited, flames spread across the foam at approximately one foot per second.
A National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) investigation of the fire, using computer simulations with FDS and a mock-up of the stage area and dance floor, concluded that a fire sprinkler system would have contained the fire long enough to give everyone time to exit safely. However, because of the building's age (built in 1946) and size (4,484 square feet (404 m²)), many believed the Station to be exempt from sprinkler system requirements. In fact, the building had undergone an occupancy change when it was converted from a restaurant to a nightclub. This change dissolved its exemption from the law, a fact that West Warwick fire inspectors never noticed. On the night in question, the Station was legally required to have a sprinkler system but did not; outcry over the event has sparked calls for a national Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act but those efforts have so far stalled.
On December 9, 2003, brothers Jeffrey A. and Michael A. Derderian, the two owners of The Station nightclub, and Daniel M. Biechele, Great White's former road manager, were charged with 200 counts of involuntary manslaughter — two per death, because they were indicted under two separate theories of the crime: criminal-negligence manslaughter (resulting from a legal act in which the accused ignores the risks to others and someone is killed) and misdemeanor manslaughter (resulting from a petty crime that causes a death). The three men pleaded not guilty to the charges. The Derderians also were fined $1.07 million for failing to carry workers' compensation insurance for their employees, four of whom died in the blaze.
Band manager's trial
The first criminal trial was against Great White's tour manager at the time, Daniel Michael Biechele, 26, from Orlando, Florida. This trial was scheduled to start May 1, 2006, but Biechele, against his lawyers' advice, pleaded guilty to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter on February 7, 2006, in what he said was an effort to "bring peace, I want this to be over with."
Biechele sentencing and statement
On May 10, 2006, State Prosecutor Randall White asked that Biechele be sentenced to ten years in prison, the maximum allowed under the plea bargain, citing the massive loss of life in the fire and the need to send a message. Speaking to the public for the first time since the fire, Biechele appeared remorseful during his sentencing. Choking back tears, he made a statement to the court and to the families of the victims.
For three years, I've wanted to be able to speak to the people that were affected by this tragedy, but I know that there's nothing that I can say or do that will undo what happened that night.
Since the fire, I have wanted to tell the victims and their families how truly sorry I am for what happened that night and the part that I had in it. I never wanted anyone to be hurt in any way. I never imagined that anyone ever would be.
I know how this tragedy has devastated me, but I can only begin to understand what the people who lost loved ones have endured. I don't know that I'll ever forgive myself for what happened that night, so I can't expect anybody else to.
I can only pray that they understand that I would do anything to undo what happened that night and give them back their loved ones.
I'm so sorry for what I have done, and I don't want to cause anyone any more pain.
I will never forget that night, and I will never forget the people that were hurt by it.
I am so sorry.
Superior Court Judge Francis J. Darigan sentenced Biechele to 15 years in prison, with four to serve and 11 years suspended, plus three years' probation, for his role in the fire. Darigan remarked, "The greatest sentence that can be imposed on you has been imposed on you by yourself." Under this sentence, with good behavior, Biechele would be eligible for parole in September 2007. Judge Darigan deemed Biechele highly unlikely to re-offend, which was among the mitigating factors that led to his decision to impose this sentence.
The sentence drew mixed reactions in the courtroom. Many of the families believed that the punishment was just; others had hoped for a more severe sentence.
Biechele's parole support
On September 4, 2007, some families of the fire's victims expressed their support for Biechele's parole.
Leland Hoisington, whose 28-year-old daughter, Abbie, was killed in the fire, told reporters, "I think they should not even bother with a hearing—just let Biechele out... I just don't find him as guilty of anything." The state parole board received approximately 20 letters, the majority of which expressed their sympathy and support for Biechele, some going as far as to describe him as a "scapegoat" with limited responsibility.
Board chairwoman Lisa Holley told journalists of her surprise at the forgiving attitude of the families, saying, "I think the most overwhelming part of it for me was the depth of forgiveness of many of these families that have sustained such a loss."
Dave Kane and Joanne O'Neill, parents of youngest victim Nicholas O'Neill, released their letter to the board to reporters. "In the period following this tragedy, it was Mr. Biechele, alone, who stood up and admitted responsibility for his part in this horrible event... He apologized to the families of the victims and made no attempt to mitigate his guilt," the letter said.
Others pointed out that Biechele had sent handwritten letters to the families of each of the 100 victims and that he had a work release position in a local charity.
On September 19, 2007, the Rhode Island Parole Board announced that Biechele would be released in March 2008.
Biechele was released from prison on March 19, 2008. As reported by the Associated Press, he did not answer any questions and was quickly whisked away in a waiting car.
Nightclub owners' trial
Following Biechele's trial, the Station's owners, Michael and Jeffrey Derderian, were scheduled to receive separate trials. However, on September 21, 2006, Superior Court Judge Francis J. Darigan announced that the brothers had changed their pleas from "not guilty" to "no contest," thereby avoiding a trial. Michael Derderian received 15 years in prison, with four to serve and 11 years suspended, plus three years' probation—the same sentence as Biechele. Jeffrey Derderian received a 10-year suspended sentence, three years' probation, and 500 hours of community service.
In a letter to the victims' families, Judge Darigan said that a trial "would only serve to further traumatize and victimize not only the loved ones of the deceased and the survivors of this fire, but the general public as well." He added that the difference in the brothers' sentences reflected their respective involvement with the purchase and installation of the flammable foam.
Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch objected strenuously to the plea bargain, saying that both brothers should have received jail time and that Michael Derderian should have received more time than Biechele.
In January 2008, the Parole Board decided to grant Michael Derderian an early release; he was scheduled to be released from prison in September 2009, but was granted his release in June 2009 for good behavior.
As of September 2008, at least $115 million in settlement agreements had been paid, or offered, to the victims or their families by various defendants:
There are other named defendants who have not yet made a settlement offer, including American Foam Corporation, who sold the insulation to the Station Nightclub.
There have been other nightclub fires in the United States that also resulted in significant loss of life. The 28 November 1942 Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston caused 492 deaths. The 23 April 1940 Rhythm Night Club Fire in Natchez, Mississippi, claimed the lives of approximately 209 persons. The 28 May 1977 Beverly Hills Supper Club fire in Southgate, Kentucky, claimed 165 lives. The 2 December 2016 Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland, California claimed 36 lives. The Station fire's 100 deaths exceeded the death toll of 87 in the 25 March 1990 Happyland Fire in the Bronx, New York City. The deadliest single-building fire in United States history was the 30 December 1903 Iroquois Theatre fire in Chicago, with at least 602 deaths.
Numerous violations of existing codes contributed to the calamity, triggering an immediate effort to strengthen fire code protections. Within weeks of the disaster, an emergency meeting was called for the National Fire Protection Association committee handling code for "assembly occupancies". Based upon its work, Tentative Interim Amendments (TIAs) were issued for the national standard "Life Safety Code" (NFPA 101), in July 2003. The TIAs required automatic fire sprinklers in all nightclubs and similar locations with 100 or more occupants, plus additional crowd manager personnel, among other things. These TIAs were subsequently incorporated into the 2006 edition of NFPA 101, along with additional exit requirements for new nightclub occupancies. It is left for each state or local jurisdiction to legally enact and enforce the current code changes.
On January 16, 2013, Jack Russell scheduled a benefit show in February 2013, commemorating the tenth anniversary of the fire, and announced that all proceeds would go towards the Station Fire Memorial Foundation. Upon hearing of the event, the Foundation asked that its name be removed, stating the animosity still felt by many of the survivors and surviving families. Jack Russell's management has stated that the show would be renamed and that the proceeds would go to another charity.
A fictional portrayal of the fire was shown in Season 14 of Law & Order, in the episode "Blaze".
A fictional portrayal of the fire appeared in James Crafford's play entitled Thane Qwad originally performed at the American Theatre of Actors in Manhattan.
In a Season 2 episode of Everybody Hates Chris, narrator Chris Rock explained that blocking an exit door with a table was "a bigger fire hazard than pyrotechnics at a Great White concert".
In August 2016, the site was reported to have been being used as a PokeStop in Pokémon Go, to uproar from victim's families.