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R.I. fire marshal will retire next week

He chose to leave on his own

PROVIDENCE -- The state's fire marshal, who faced tough criticism after a deadly nightclub fire that killed 100 people in 2003, will retire next week, Governor Donald Carcieri announced Friday.

Irving J. Owens, whose term ran out last year, has served as fire marshal since 1995. His retirement takes effect on Dec. 23.

A woman who answered the phone at the fire marshal's office Friday referred comment to Carcieri spokesman Jeff Neal, who said Owens delivered his retirement letter to the governor on Thursday and chose to leave the post on his own.

''Irving has dedicated his life to fire safety, and his tireless efforts to improve the prevention and investigation of fires has contributed to making Rhode Island one of the leaders in fire safety," Carcieri said in a statement announcing Owens' retirement.

Owens led the fire marshal's office during the Feb. 20, 2003 fire at The Station nightclub in West Warwick, which began when pyrotechnics set off by the rock band Great White ignited highly flammable foam that lined the club's walls and ceiling.

Records showed that local fire inspectors, who are certified by the fire marshal's office, did not note the flammable foam in their periodic reports on the club. The club was cited for several minor code violations, including a door that swung the wrong way.

Lawsuits filed on behalf of fire survivors and relatives of those killed included Owens as a defendant. A complaint filed by a large group of plaintiffs in July 2004 named dozens of defendants and accused Owens of negligence, saying inspections of the club failed to discover the foam and that local fire inspectors were not properly trained or supervised.

But US District Judge Ronald Lagueux ruled last month that Owens was shielded from civil liability stemming from the fire and dismissed him as a defendant.

Carol O'Donnell, whose daughter, Katie, 26, died in the nightclub fire, said she was pleased to learn of the fire marshal's retirement. ''I would like them all to retire because they did a lousy job," O'Donnell said, referring to officials responsible for the club inspections.

Owens' term officially expired in 2004, but he stayed on as fire marshal and was reported over the summer to be a top candidate to be reappointed to the job.

The nightclub fire triggered an overhaul of the state's fire safety code that implemented stringent new regulations. Owens was quoted in September 2004 as saying he believed the state had been made safer since the fire.

Owens worked in Warwick for 28 years before taking over as state fire marshal 10 years ago. He was appointed by then-Governor Lincoln Almond. No successor has been named, Neal said. ''I expect that the governor will be considering that question in the next couple of days," Neal said.

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