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R.I. nightclub investigation moves to grand jury
By Denise Lavoie, Associated Press, 2/25/03
PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Members of the band on stage the night a deadly fire erupted at a West Warwick nightclub plan to testify early next week before a grand jury investigating whether criminal charges should be filed in the inferno that killed 97 people.
Byron Hontas, a publicist for the band Great White, said Tuesday the members were cooperating with authorities in Rhode Island and would "continue to provide whatever assistance they're able to." Hontas, speaking from Los Angeles, said he didn't know exactly when the band would return to Rhode Island.
The grand jury was scheduled to convene Wednesday, law enforcement authorities told The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity. Investigators are trying to determine who is to blame for the fire that was apparently sparked by the band's pyrotechnics last Thursday. Flames swept through The Station in a matter of minutes.
It could not be immediately determined if the club's owners, brothers Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, also have received subpoenas. Their attorney, Kathleen Hagerty, didn't return calls seeking comment Tuesday, and the attorney general's office declined to comment on the issue.
Police searched the Narragansett home of Michael Derderian on Sunday, according to a law enforcement source who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Meanwhile, Gov. Don Carcieri said Tuesday that 93 of the nightclub victims had been identified. He also said there was a discrepancy between the number of people reported missing and those confirmed dead, and search crews using dogs were expected to go over the charred ruins again to look for bodies.
The fire also injured nearly 190 people; about 60 remain hospitalized, including 39 in critical condition.
Before the news conference, Carcieri said he went to a hospital where he met the family of a young woman who had gone to the club with eight others. Only four of them survived. The woman lost her fiancee and her brother.
"This is a tough, very, very tough process and the families and the impacts of this thing are rippling throughout the state," Carcieri said.
The band Great White returned to the Los Angeles area a few days after the fire without its guitarist, Ty Longley, who died in the blaze.
Hontas, the band's publicist, said the four remaining members aren't planning any performances or tours. "They're still in shock and distraught. It's not any easier today than it was last week," he said Tuesday.
Attorney General Patrick Lynch has said he does not believe the Derderians have cooperated with investigators, but spokesman Mike Healey said Tuesday: "We're not pitting the band against the Derderians."
In Florida, promoter Tim Clark, who said Great White used fireworks without permission at a Feb. 7 concert in Pinellas Park, said he was interviewed at his home Tuesday by officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. He said he has not been subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury.
The stage manager and sound engineer of the West Warwick nightclub says he warned one of the club's owners, Michael Derderian, months ago that bands were using pyrotechnics inside the structure and that the practice should be stopped.
The manager, Paul Vanner of East Providence, told the Boston Herald and The Boston Globe he didn't see any bands use pyrotechnics again until last week during Great White's first song.
Legal experts and fire investigators said the Derderians and members of the band could be indicted on such state charges as involuntary manslaughter or second-degree murder. And a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Providence says federal charges haven't been ruled out.
"It is pretty obvious that there was some joint responsibility. Maybe the issue is not which one to charge, but what to charge both with," said Donald Bliss, state fire marshal for New Hampshire and the president of the National Association of State Fire Marshals.
Edward Ryan Jr., an attorney who represented a homeless man charged with manslaughter in a 1999 fire that killed six Worcester, Mass., firefighters, compared the Rhode Island case to Boston's Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire that killed 492 people in 1942.
In that fire, the nightclub owner was charged with negligent manslaughter for having an overcrowded club with locked exit doors, an act that showed he disregarded known risks to life, Ryan said. He said the bar boy suspected of starting the fire when he lit a match was not charged because the deaths were caused by an unsafe building.
Ryan said the grand jury could find the club owners and the band committed "affirmative acts" that caused the deaths -- the band by using pyrotechnics without a permit, and the Derderians by failing to make sure no fire hazards were present. He cited reports that pyrotechnics had been used in the club by other bands.
"If they had 70 shows in the last three years and 35 of those involved pyrotechnics of some sort, that leads to a fair inference that they knew of or should have known what was going on in their club," Ryan said.
"But clearly, whoever set up that display -- the band -- is a potential target, whether they had permission or not."
Triton Limited Realty Partnership of Warwick had owned the building that housed the nightclub since the early 1970s, and leased it to the Derderians.
Triton attorney Daniel McKiernan said officials from the attorney general's office have indicated that Mary Jo Carolan, the president of the realty group, will be subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury.
McKiernan said Carolan, who has already answered questions from state investigators and West Warwick police, had no involvement in running the club. "I have no reason to believe that anyone from Triton is the subject of a criminal investigation," McKiernan said.
Later Tuesday, the governor traveled to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston to thank doctors and other hospital staff who cared for the people hurt in the deadly nightclub fire. Fourteen survivors of the blaze are still there.
Carcieri said he spoke with a patient who had been re-admitted Tuesday when she returned for a follow-up visit. She told the governor that her boyfriend died in the fire.
"Her heart is absolutely broken and there's not much you can say to anybody in that situation," he said.
Carcieri declined to comment on the investigation, but said: "I'm angry as many people are. This is a disaster that should never have happened."