February 20, 2003: The Station Nightclub Fire










WHAT HAPPENED?


On February 20, 2003, mere days after the E2 nightclub stampede in Chicago, a fire broke out in a Rhode Island nightclub, killing 100 people and injuring over 200 more.


The fire was caused by the pyrotechnics set off by the tour manager of the headlining band, Great White. The flammable acoustic foam in the walls and ceilings were ignited as a result, burning the building and engulfing the area in toxic, black smoke.


Video footage exists that shows the ignition, the growth of the smoke and the chaos.


Due to the toxic smoke, intense heat and a stampede toward the main exit, 100 people died and 230 more were injured. 132 people made it out uninjured, but many of the survivors have experienced PTSD from the incident.

The fire was the 4th deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history.

THE FIRE


The fire broke out only seconds into the bands first song, their 1991 hit "Desert Moon".


The tour manager, Daniel Biechele, set off the pyrotechnics on both sides of the drummer, using cylindrical devices that sprayed sparks of fire for 15 seconds. So when the walls and ceiling began to catch fire, some still believed it was part of the set, until the smoke began to engulf the room.


20 seconds after the planned fire effects ended, the band stopped playing and the lead singer said "Wow, that's not good". Within 2 minutes, the entire stage was engulfed in flames and the band members headed for the stage exit.


At this point, everyone realized that something was wrong and began to head for the exit. Despite being 4 exits in the club, most people headed straight for the main exit, where they had entered, creating a stampede. The hallway was narrow and the influx of people completely blocked the exit. This was where numerous deaths occurred. There were 462 people in attendance, which was over the capacity of 402.


The injuries and deaths were caused by smoke inhalation, burns, thermal trauma or being trampled.


The band's lead guitarist, Ty Longley, died in the fire. He is thought to have left the building, but returned to try and save his guitar. The show's emcee Mike "The Doctor" Gonsalves was also killed, and many think that he (along with Longley) were trying to salvage the equipment while the fire was still relatively at bay, but it got out of control too quickly and they could not breathe in the toxic fumes any longer.


Survivors recall that a bouncer was guarding the stage exit, allowing only band members to escape the blazing fire that way.

FIRST HAND ACCOUNTS


The fire was recorded from the beginning, and was released to national news stations. The journalist recording was planning to do a piece on nightclub safety, an idea he pitched after the E2 Nightclub stampede that had killed 21 just 3 days earlier.


He said it all happened so very fast. As soon as the pyrotechnics stopped, a flame just went up the ceiling. Some people immediately said they should leave, but some believed it was part of the show. There was not panic initially. The flames were at a bay and the smoke hadn't begun to spread.


Once the panic broke out, the ensuing flood to the door, he recalls, lead to a bottle-neck at the front door. He got out, but people stopped coming behind him, trapped in the narrow hallway. He kicked windows in for people to crawl out, which some did.


He remembers looking in and seeing people stacked on top of each other, black smoke pouring over their heads.


He said within 2 minutes tops, the place was completely engulfed in smoke.

THE INVESTIGATION


After the fire, the blame game began. People tried to blame the band, the tour manager, the nightclub owners, the manufacturers of the pyrotechnics and even the concert promoters. The band said they had received permission to use fire in the venue, but the owners said they did not grant permission.


The National Institute of Standards and Technology investigation included that, had the club had a sprinkler system, it would have contained the fire for long enough for everyone to get out.


Initially, it was thought that the buildings age had grandfathered it in from that requirement. But, the nightclub had once been a restaurant, and in that transition, the occupancy regulations chanced which would have dissolved its exemption from the rule, but no one ever noticed. Technically, it was legally required to have a sprinkler system on the night of the fire and it did not. (This sparked outcry for a National Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act, but the momentum died quickly.)


On December 9, 2003, both club owners, brothers Michael and Jeffery Derderian, and the band's manager Biechele, were charged with 200 counts of involuntary manslaughter - 2 counts per death, 1 for criminal negligence manslaughter (ignoring safety risks to others resulting in death) and misdemeanor manslaughter (a petty crime that leads to death). Biechele plead guilty, while the brothers plead not guilty. They were also fined 1.07 million for failing to carry workers compensation for their employees... 4 of whom died in the fire.

A TALE OF 2 TRIALS


Band Manager Daniel Biechele


Biechele was a 26-year-old from Orlando, Florida. His trial was supposed to start on May 1, 2006 (yes, for those crunching the numbers, that is over 3 years AFTER the fire). However, against his lawyer's advice, he plead guilty on February 7, 2006, to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter, saying he wanted to bring peace and for it all to be over.


The state prosecutor asked that he be sentenced to 10 years in prison.


During the sentencing, Biechele was extremely remorseful, choking back tears. In his statement, he apologized profusely. He said he could not change his actions, but wanted them to know that he would do anything to undo that night and wanted to tell all of the victims and their loved ones how sorry he was for the role he played. He acknowledged that his devastation paled in comparison to the devastation felt by the families of people who were lost. He said he did not want to cause any more pain, and would never forget those who died as a result of something he did.


Biechele was sentenced to 15 years, 4 to serve and 11 suspended, and 3 years probation. The judge said that the greatest sentence was already imposed on himself due to the extreme guilt he felt. He would be eligible for parole in 2007 as he was unlikely to offend again. Many families hoped for a more severe sentence, but many believed it was just.


In 2007 when he was up for parole, many family members of the deceased supported him. One parent, who lost her 28-year-old daughter, said there was no reason to even have a hearing and he should be out now, as he was not guilty of anything. Another parent said that after the tragedy, he was the only person who assumed responsibility and never tried to mitigate his guilt or involvement, and he sincerely apologized.


The parole board received 20 letters expressing support for him. A board chairwoman was extremely surprised at the forgiving attitude of the families, given their unimaginable loss.


He sent each family of the 100 victims a personal, handwritten letter.


In 2007, his release was announced and he got out on March 19, 2008.


The Club Owners, Michael and Jeffery Derderian


Originally, the 2 brothers were scheduled for different trials. However, in September of 2006, they changed their pleas from "not guilty" to "no contest", avoiding a trial. The judge said a trial would further traumatize victims, families and the community.


Michael was sentenced to 15 years, 4 to serve and 11 suspended and 3 years probation, the same as Biechele. Jeffery was sentenced to a 10 year suspended sentence, 3 years probation and 500 hours of community service. The difference in their sentences had to do with their involvement in purchasing and installing the flammable foam on the walls and ceilings.


Rhode Island Attorney General believed the brothers should have both received jail time, and that jail time should have been longer than Biechele's.


Michael was released from prison in June 2009 on good behavior. No one remains behind bars for the fire.

REMEMBERING THE VICTIMS


A service was held locally the following day to remember those who died, which was attended by thousands of people.


5 months after the fire, Great White started a benefit tour where they said a prayer before each show for those affected by the fire. They also gave a portion of the tour's proceeds to the Station Family Fund. They did not sing their song "Desert Moon" again, citing the horrible memories associated with it, until 2009.


The site was cleared and crosses were put up temporarily as memorials. In April of 2016, the Station Fire Memorial Foundation, started in 2003, raised its goal of $2 million dollars to build the Station Fire Memorial Park. It was dedicated in 2017.


Similarly to the tragic E2 Nightclub stampede, in a world with purposeful hate and violence, sometimes, you can forget about all of the terrible things that can happen due to a string of accidents. Though the night club owners and the tour manager were held responsible, nothing they did that night or before was malicious. Setting off cool fire displays during a concert was not intended to kill 100 people. Using acoustic foam in the venue was not intended to break the hearts of thousands of loved ones. Sometimes, things just happen, and sometimes, many people die as a result of it.


Safety measures in clubs and venues continue to become safer, partially because of the tragedy that took place 17 years ago today. And though that cannot bring back the lives of those 100 victims, it may have saved countless people from similar accidents since.


REFERENCES:

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Station_nightclub_fire

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