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DEADLY DECISIONS | BEHIND THE RHODE ISLAND NIGHTCLUB FIRE

Series of errors sealed crowd's fate

6/9/2003

Second of two parts

This story was reported by Stephen Kurkjian, Stephanie Ebbert, and Thomas Farragher of the Globe staff. It was written by Farragher.

WEST WARWICK, R.I. -- The indoor fireworks that would burn their way into Rhode Island history went almost unnoticed as a shadowy figure arranged them on stage.

Daniel M. Biechele, Great White's new tour manager, borrowed a flashlight and positioned the ''gerbs'' -- devices that would spray 15-foot plumes of brilliant sparks for 15 seconds -- just behind the band's guitarists and just in front of its drummer.

And then, just after 11 p.m., he turned a key that ignited the display at The Station nightclub -- and triggered a cataclysm.

Biechele knew his way around The Station from earlier work with another band. He knew about fireworks, too -- how to use them and how they could add a visual exclamation point to the musical roar.

In early January of this year, Biechele test-fired a gerb in a San Diego parking lot for Great White's lead singer, Jack Russell. The band was looking for something new to spruce up its act, and Russell liked what he saw, band manager Paul Woolnough said. He said Biechele then placed an order for more than $1,000 worth of the ''pyro'' from a Memphis special effects firm. At other stops on the Great White tour, when the shower of sparks fell harmlessly to the floor, no one thought much about the possible risk.

But at The Station, owners Michael and Jeffrey Derderian had installed a 21/2-inch-thick layer of polyurethane in an attempt to sound-proof the club and appease irate neighbors. The foam would fuel a fire so intense that it devoured all the oxygen in its path, and so swift that once patrons realized the danger they had less than a minute to escape.

Lawyers and prosecutors are attempting to decipher whether the fireworks were the work of a renegade roadie or the planned pyrotechnics of nightclub owners trying to fill the house. But once the flames erupted, The Station's patrons were doomed by a series of missteps, oversights, and in some cases clear violations of Rhode Island law.

The Globe has found that, as the 300-plus patrons looked for ways to escape, two of the club's four available exits proved nearly useless. One in the kitchen was known only to employees and regular customers. The path to the exit next to the stage was blocked by an inner door and, according to three people who escaped, by a security staff member who directed panicked patrons to other doors even as flames rose.

Those who reached the main entrance were forced to squeeze by a ticket booth that funneled fleeing customers into a 3-foot-wide space that became a deadly bottleneck. Fire safety experts consulted by the Globe say a crowd that size ought to have been able to make its way out in 200 seconds. But 43 seconds after the crowd headed for the club's main exit, the door was blocked by a growing pile of club patrons, panicked and stumbling over one another in the smoke and darkness.

A frame-by-frame analysis of video shot that night by a WPRI-TV cameraman documents how swiftly the horror was complete. Even as firefighters began arriving on the scene, the screams of the dying were beginning to grow fainter and more scattered. After just over six minutes, no one could be seen on the video getting out alive.

Authorities, now reviewing a series of prefire missteps, are also tracing the footsteps of Biechele (pronounced BEAK-lee).

 THE SERIES

PART ONE
Deception, missteps sparked a tragedy
The road to The Station nightclub fires was marked by poor judgments, missed opportunities, administrative sloppiness, and shabby acts of self-interest.

PART TWO
Series of errors sealed crowd's fate
Once the flames erupted, The Station's patrons were doomed by a series of missteps, oversights, and in some cases clear violations of Rhode Island law.

 THE SURVIVORS

Julie Mellini
Paul Vanner
Soundman Paul Vanner ran from the stage to get a fire extinguisher. Then, realizing that it was too late, he escaped through the kitchen exit with bartender Julie Mellini and others. (Globe Staff Photos / Lane Turner)

Mike Ricardi
Mike Ricardi lost sight of friend Jim Gahan in the crowd. Ricardi escaped through a front window; Gahan died in the crush near the front entry. (Globe Staff Photo / Lane Turner)

Robert Cripe
As Robert Cripe pushed out of the front entry, girlfriend Sharon Wilson was forced down. Cripe dug into the human pile and pulled an injured but alive Wilson to safety. (Globe Staff Photo / Lane Turner)

 GRAPHIC

A firestorm erupts
Seconds after a pyrotechnics display ignited flammable foam, the nightclub was engulfed in flames.

 PROFILES

 MORE COVERAGE

The R.I. nightclub fire

 

As Great White's tour manager, Biechele worked in the stage's shadows, just beyond the spotlight that fell on the musicians who paid his salary. His job was to provide for the care and feeding of the men at the microphones. He made sure they got a hot meal before the show and a place to sleep after it. He hauled their equipment and helped hawk their merchandise. He collected the cash that ensured that the music played on. And when the '80s hair band wanted to add some pizzazz to its familiar act, the members turned to Biechele to make it happen.

The pyrotechnic devices Biechele ordered were shipped to the Shark City Billiards and Sports Bar in Glendale Heights, Illinois, where Great White opened its 2003 tour in January. They came packed in a cardboard box marked ''Danger'' and ''Explosive.''

Biechele knew the devices were not welcome at every club. Indeed, when the shipment arrived at Shark City, the club manager moved them safely away from her customers and told Biechele there would be no pyrotechnics there.

Biechele readily acquiesced, a Shark City manager said. With 27 more stops ahead on Great White's tour, there would be ample time to use the gerbs.

The fireworks were stowed aboard the band's tour bus, which 28 days and 3,800 miles later rolled up to The Station, the darkened dance hall where more than 300 patrons would converge for a night of head-banging rock 'n' roll.

`This is working out great'

Thursday, Feb. 20, was supposed to be a banner night at The Station.

Great White, a band with a real, if fading, national following, had been one of the first big acts hosted by the Derderian brothers after they took over the club in 2000. Tickets sales were brisk for its return visit. A full house was expected, and the club's staff was at full complement.

Kevin J. Beese Sr., the club's 38-year-old manager, arrived first. He got in about 12:30 p.m. and relocated tables and chairs to make way for the big crowd. He pushed the club's pool tables up against garden-style windows in a room set off from the dance floor.

Coolers were stocked with long-neck beers. The band's preferred food was ordered. And by 2:15, the band's white tour bus had pulled into The Station's frosty parking lot on Cowesett Avenue.

Beese helped load the band's equipment on stage. Drums were tucked into a foam-padded alcove set into the stage's rear wall. Monitors and microphone stands were set up.

By 3:15, Paul M. Vanner, the nightclub's sound man, had arrived, and within 45 minutes Great White - just in from a gig in Bangor - was running through its sound check.

''They said, `This is working out great. This is perfect,''' Vanner recalled.

Jack Russell, the hulking vocalist who formed Great White in Southern California in 1978, walked in about 5 p.m., taking care to adjust tiny electronic earpieces that allowed him to precisely monitor his band's sound as he sang.

And then Vanner, the Derderians' stage manager, and Biechele met for the first time that day and negotiated stage times. The Derderians had agreed to pay $5,000 for 90 minutes of Great White tunes and a post-show session at which patrons could greet the band.

Vanner said Biechele mentioned nothing about fireworks that night. If he had received the club's permission for pyrotechnics, Vanner said, he would have given Biechele the fire extinguisher tucked under his sound board to take onstage. ''Here's the fire extinguisher, dude, just in case anything happens,'' Vanner said he had told other musicians whose acts included indoor fireworks.

He and Jeffrey B. Pine, Jeffrey Derderian's attorney, said that several months before the Great White show, the Derderians had decided not to allow pyrotechnics at any more concerts.

Through his attorney, Thomas G. Briody, Biechele declined comment.

By 7 p.m. Russell - satisfied with his sound - was back aboard his tour bus opining about life on the road and the state of rock 'n' roll with two disc jockeys from Nichols College in Dudley, Mass., Michael R. Ricardi of Worcester and James C. Gahan IV of Falmouth.

As Russell held forth, the club's staff began arriving. Bartender Julie A. Mellini drove from Cranston with Linda Fisher, her friend and upstairs neighbor. With '80s music on that night's program, both women dressed in the style of those times: sheer blouses and blue jeans.

Jeff Derderian, 36, jumped behind the club's main, horseshoe bar, pouring draft beers as the crowd thickened. His brother Michael, 42, checked in by phone three or four times that day from Florida.

By 10 p.m., Andrea Mancini, 28, was at her post at the club's front door. Mancini, whose 39-year-old husband, Steven, played in one of the opening bands, checked ID's and collected tickets. A two-man police detail stood nearby.

Ricardi and Gahan, who received two free passes from Biechele, stood two rows from the stage. In the front row, just five steps from the stage exit door, stood patrons John Gibbs and his friend Kevin Dunn, fans from Attleboro. Just behind them were Tim Cormier, 30, and his father, stepmother, and sister, of Foxborough.

Robert Cripe, a 38-year-old truck driver, and his girlfriend, Sharon Wilson, arrived at 10:30 and waited near Mancini's booth until Cripe's old friend, Bonnie Hamelin, showed up.

Brian Butler, a cameraman for the Providence TV station WPRI, where Jeff Derderian had just taken a job after leaving Boston's Channel 7, was taping a story about safety in public venues. Mellini playfully stuck her tongue out at him. Rena Gershelis, a 27-year-old waitress who served $2 fruit-flavored shots of booze, vamped for the WPRI camera.

By then, the box of pyrotechnics had been placed near the front of the stage. And Derderian had handed Biechele an envelope filled with $2,500 in cash - the balance of the club's payment to the band.

Great White took the stage. And just before Jack Russell sang, ''Let's shake this town, Baby,'' the opening lyrics to ''Desert Moon,'' Biechele, using a borrowed flashlight to see in the dark, turned the key to a small single-circuit transformer that was connected to three gerbs.

The panic begins

As guitars wailed, three plumes of sparks burned strong and bright.

Within nine seconds flames flickered from the upper right-hand corner of the drummer's foam-covered alcove. Within 18 seconds, flames danced up the foam on the stage walls. Six seconds later, they licked across the ceiling.

Patrons, some buzzed by alcohol, hesitated momentarily. Puzzled band members stared warily at the flames. If some in the audience thought the fire was part of the show, Russell and his bandmates knew it was not.

And, as smoke began to fill the club, Biechele knew, too.

''I think I'm in trouble. I [screwed] up,'' Biechele said as the sparks grew into flames, according to Mario Giamei Jr. of Sutton, Mass., an occasional bouncer at the club who said he was standing next to Great White's tour manager and overheard the remark.

To the left of stage, soundman Paul Vanner saw trouble, too. ''These little candle-sized flames start coming out of the foam,'' Vanner said. ''I'm like, `Oh my God, I've got to get to this fire extinguisher.'''

Vanner said he pushed and shoved his way from his stage-front monitors back toward the club's main sound board, where the extinguisher was mounted, 40 feet away. When he got there, he said he turned to see flames already 4 feet high. He said he thought it was too late for the extinguisher to do any good.

Mellini stood 5 feet away at a rear bar next to a hallway that led to restrooms. Mellini and Vanner had once been roommates, and she said she recognized terror in his eyes that said, ''Get out, now!''

Long before the fire, Vanner had made a mental note to use the kitchen exit in an emergency. ''This is the exit to use if someone pulls out a gun and starts shooting, or if there's a fire in this building,'' Vanner said. ''I know this is an exit that's going to be accessible because it's unknown.''

So, three Station employees - Vanner, with his fire extinguisher; Mellini, toting her tip jar and the cash-register drawer; and ''shot girl'' Gershelis - made their way out that door. A few patrons followed, Mellini said.

Vanner was out first, and by the time Mellini made it, a curtain-thick cloud of choking, poisonous smoke had followed, too.

''I walked down the steps and turned around and saw that black cloud of smoke hit me dead in the face,'' Mellini said. ''It was like a monster.''

As the workers left by a rear door, urging others to follow, most of the club's 300-plus patrons crushed toward the front door, instinctively inclined to leave as they had come.

Russell was on stage, where, he would later tell associates, he looked in vain for a fire extinguisher. The closest one was just a few feet away but out of sight, placed weeks before in a closet after the bracket that held it had broken. The lead singer fruitlessly tossed bottled water on a wall now fully ablaze. Then he and most of his bandmates jumped the stage and fled through the stage exit.

`You can't use that door'

An inward-swinging door - three times cited as a code violation by West Warwick inspectors and three times replaced by club managers - was blocking the exit closest to the stage. A sign on the door proclaimed: ''Door remains closed at all times.'' Bouncers opened it immediately after the fire broke out, but some survivors said that at least one of the bouncers guarded the exit for the band and told patrons to find another way out.

''We were heading toward the [stage] door there,'' said Gibbs, 36, who ultimately fled through a window. ''[A club bouncer] says: `You can't use that door. It's reserved for the band.' ... It was like, `OK, you're not going to let me out that way, I'll find another way.'''

He and his friend, Dunn, gripped hands as they made their way toward the front exit, but when someone squeezed between them, they lost their hold. Gibbs fell, and when he recovered, he could not find Dunn. He would never see him again.

Cormier said a bouncer tried to ''herd people'' to the front and bumped chests with Cormier when he resisted. ''My father looked right at him and said, `The place is on fire, you idiot,''' said Cormier. The Cormiers raced outside, where they saw Great White guitarist Mark Kendall.

Giamei, a former club employee and a longtime patron, said he headed for the stage door. ''I overcame my fear and went toward that wall that was on fire,'' he said.

Club manager Beese, at the main bar when the fire began, said he raced to the front door, where a fire extinguisher was kept near the ticket-taking station. In the stampede that followed, he said, he could not reach the stage. ''I ended up dropping the fire extinguisher, and I got pushed against the wall,'' Beese said. ''I had to push off people. And I'd push. And then I'd move them. Then I'd push. Then I kind of slid my way out the door.''

Blinding smoke was rapidly enveloping the club. Fire raced up its walls and across its ceiling. The piercing alert from the club's alarm system - triggered by heat greater than 195 degrees - sounded 48 seconds after the pyrotechnics display.

The crowd surged toward two exits, both at the front of the building: the main entrance and the bar door. Fire codes are written to prevent such a rush by requiring that a minimum of two exits be placed far apart from each other.

At the main entrance, patrons' escape was slowed by a ticket booth built into the floor. Three feet of space separated the ticket booth and the wall, said Max Wistow, interim lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the fire, who measured the span after the fire. That meant the crowd had to squeeze through two-abreast to reach the corridor to the main exit.

Just around the corner, beside another partition, Adam Tanzi, 24, of West Warwick stood waiting to make sure his friends were behind him. He tried to push himself back into the crowd, but he was pushed up against the partition. Two of his fingers were crushed against it, the fingernails pulled halfway off. Blinded by smoke, he tripped and toppled onto another person. He found himself with his head and torso stretched outside the front door, his legs still inside.

Panicked patrons continued to trip, fall, or jump on top of him, as he lay on the cusp between life and death.

''Once one person falls, those in the back just pile up like cordwood,'' said Jake Pauls, a Maryland-based safety specialist who studies crowd management. He told the Globe that the bottleneck at the front door may have resulted from a single stumble as the crush grew.

Pauls said the crowd at the station should have been able to evacuate in 200 seconds. But, from his examination of the videotape, he estimates that once patrons reacted to the reality of the fire, they had just 43 seconds to get out before the main door was blocked.

Caught in the bottleneck were Cripe, the truck driver, and his girlfriend, Sharon Wilson. As they approached the foyer, they lost sight of Hamelin, who was obscured by toxic smoke that filled the foyer and fueled the panic.

Wilson, within a few feet of freedom, got ''stampeded to the ground.'' Cripe, slammed up against the entryway wall, pushed his way to freedom and then dug into the human pile for Wilson. ''I got pushed down on the ground, and then people just kept falling on top of me,'' she said. ''It was like dominoes. People just kept falling down.''

When Cripe finally wrestled his girlfriend from the pile, she was naked from the waist down. But alive.

Anatomy of an inferno

The fire moved with the precision and speed of a killer weather system.

It surged out and up. It hungrily searched for air and fuel. It began against a wall and spread quickly to where that wall met the ceiling, so its natural cone-shaped energy was compacted and concentrated there, radiating unusually intense flames.

''It's coming forward with twice the intensity it would had that fire started in the middle of the room,'' said Michael O'Shaughnessey, a Fall River-based forensic consultant who studied the physics of the fire for the Globe.

Two fans mounted near the ceilings on either side of the stage - which employees said were always on for a big show - would have directed the smoke at 45-degree angles out and down toward the dance floor, chasing frightened patrons toward the front door.

If the foam and pyrotechnics were the fire's critical flash point, its ferocity and direction were driven by the air that moved in and through the nightclub.

A fire in a wastebasket in a room, where doors are closed and windows are shut, will starve itself of oxygen and extinguish - like a candle covered by a glass.

At The Station, customers fleeing to safety were, as they shattered windows and opened doors, supplying any fire's most critical resource: fresh air.

''Windows eventually break,'' said Robert Duval, senior fire investigator for the National Fire Protection Association in Quincy. ''You have a door that's open. So it's getting air.''

Four minutes after the fire had begun, smoke had descended to within a foot of the floor. As the foam burned, it emitted cyanide, carbon monoxide, and other superheated toxins that would sear the throats and choke the lungs of those trapped inside.

Many of those who escaped were burned about the ears, neck, the back of the head, and hands - the defensive wounds of those conscious enough to duck, cover, and run.

''In a room full of smoke, it wouldn't take more than a few breaths of hot gas to injure your airway,'' said. Dr. Thomas G. Germano, a Kent Hospital physician who treated victims of the blaze.

As the fire burned through all the oxygen in its path, those still inside and alive would become increasingly oxygen starved and disoriented. No human organ is more reliant on oxygen than the brain.

The unedited WPRI-TV video, an invaluable investigative tool, also serves as a remarkable time clock. Brian Butler, who shot the video, was among the first patrons out of the club. And he kept his camera rolling without interruption for nine minutes after the fire began.

About five minutes after the pyrotechnics erupted, Butler ran, video rolling, to the side of the building. By then, flames were licking out from the eaves of the club's rear offices. In eerie footage shot through the opened stage door, the swirling black smoke can be seen filling the club, descending almost to the floor. There are no survivors in sight.

The blaze found its way through ductwork. It ate its way through insulation stuffed into the suspended ceiling above the dance floor. It consumed the 50-year-old timber used to frame a neighborhood barroom-turned-nightclub.

''It basically created its own little storm in there,'' O'Shaughnessey said.

At 11:07 p.m., the first emergency call came in from West Warwick Patrolman Anthony Bettencourt, the police officer hired to work a detail that night.

''Send fire, there's a fire at The Station,'' he told dispatch, noting that people were trapped inside, according to a police affidavit. Sirens from fire trucks - responding from the nearest station, three-tenths of a mile up Cowesett Avenue, could be heard four minutes and 30 seconds after the fireworks ignited.

It was a response time that the NFPA's Duval said is not unusual.

By the time fire trucks arrived, the WPRI video reveals, the club was fully aflame. Glass shattered. Patrons, bloodied and blackened, walked wild-eyed through the ghastly parking lot.

Someone, clothes on fire, ran hideously from the club. Fire trucks pulled up. Hoses were spilled into a parking lot of panic and pandemonium.

And there, near the tour bus that had carried him to West Warwick nine hours earlier, was Daniel M. Biechele, pulling on hoses that would be no match for the growing inferno.

The man who ordered the pyrotechnics from Memphis and ignited them in Rhode Island was trying fruitlessly to put the fire out.

`Closure never happens'

When the flames finally died, at least 25 bodies were found stacked in and around the nightclub's front entry. Fire chaplains said prayers over their remains.

Jim Gahan, the 21-year-old Falmouth, Mass., native who just hours earlier had so earnestly questioned Jack Russell about the future of rock music, died near there. His friend and radio cohost Mike Ricardi escaped through a front window.

Andrea Mancini, who collected tickets, and her husband, Steve, who had performed in one of Great White's warm-up acts that night, did not escape. Neither did Bonnie Hamelin, 27, of Warwick, who had suggested a night of live music to her old friend, Bob Cripe.

Linda Fisher fell to the ground and was able to get out through a window. She was treated for burns. Kevin Dunn, 37, whose friend said he had been blocked by a bouncer from leaving the stage door, never made it out.

In the days and weeks after the fire, the ruined nightclub was fenced off, serving temporarily as a shrine for the 100 who died there. It has since been demolished, its cellar hole leveled off. Its charred remains have been trucked away.

Prosecutors have collected evidence, and civil lawyers have catalogued 717 items - bar stools and burned-out drums - and stored them on shelves in a Cranston warehouse.

Beese, the club manager, said he thinks he knows what Biechele meant when he was overheard saying, ''I [screwed] up.'' The pyrotechnics were set up hastily in the dark and placed too close to the stage's rear wall, Beese said.

''If [Biechele is] another 6 or 8 inches out further from that drum riser, we wouldn't even be having this conversation because it wouldn't have hit the wall,'' Beese said.

For his part, Beese acknowledges that the fire extinguisher he put in the club's closet may have at least tamed the fire's early fury, and fire specialists agree. ''Maybe it would have been able to take care of the side by the door,'' he said. ''...Believe me, we tried to do what we could do. We really did. You know?''

Beese said he returned to the burning building twice, trying to guide trapped patrons to safety.

Jeffrey Derderian was unaware that the fire extinguisher had been moved, said Pine, his attorney. He also maintains that the Derderians were never told the foam that a neighbor sold them was flammable - and that they should not be considered criminally liable.

''I don't believe that people who purchase a product and use that product, which is then lit on fire in an intentional act ... are criminals for having purchased it,'' Pine said.

Pine insists the Derderians gave no permission for the fireworks. And it is clear that Great White wasn't always a stickler for getting a club's OK for its display. In the band's 12 appearances in the month before West Warwick, Great White used pyrotechnics in at least five clubs without permission, according to owners or managers of those venues. However, in the week before the fire, Biechele did seek permission from all the clubs where Great White would appear the following week.

A grand jury sitting in Rhode Island has been hearing testimony now for more than three months, poring over evidence about who is to blame for the tragedy.

Biechele's laptop computer, now in the hands of investigators, may contain a critical clue. Biechele asserts that he got approval for the pyrotechnics during a telephone conversation with Michael Derderian days before the concert. And two people familiar with the laptop say a box on a computer spreadsheet labeled ''pyro'' for Great White's Station appearance contains a check mark. A forensic analysis of the computer shows it had not been tampered with after the fire, said one person familiar with the spreadsheet.

The 2003 tour was the first time Great White used pyrotechnics as part of its show, Woolnough, the band's manager said.

He said he knew Biechele had used the fireworks during his years as tour manager for the metal band W.A.S.P. and he trusted his work. It was during a W.A.S.P appearance in March 2000 that Biechele, according to two associates, says he had previously set off fireworks at The Station.

Woolnough said Biechele never told him that local permits were required before ''pyro'' could be fired.

Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch said he is weeks, perhaps months, away from deciding whether to criminally charge anyone for the fire.

''People said right from the outset, it was the Derderians and the band,'' Lynch said in an interview. ''They were playing off one versus the other. I've never had a short list, nor do I today.''

Regardless, he said, no indictment, no trial, no conviction will deliver the finality that some people hope for.

''Closure never happens in these cases,'' he said. ''I cannot provide closure. I cannot do that. I'm just not empowered to do that. I'm empowered with some responsibilities and an opportunity I believe to provide some solace to some families.''

End of series

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 6/9/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.