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The Station: Nearly 20 years after deadly nightclub fire, the owners are speaking out

It’s been almost 20 years since 100 people died when a Rhode Island nightclub caught fire. Now, the owners are sharing their side of the story.

Michael (left) and Jeffrey Derderian, brothers who owned The Station nightclub in West Warwick, R.I. (48 Hours)

Almost twenty years after one of the deadliest building fires in history, the owners of West Warwick, Rhode Island’s The Station nightclub are speaking out.

Brothers and owners of The Station nightclub Jeffrey and Michael Derderian are finally ready to share details about the fire that killed 100 people and injured 200 more. Though some information has come out over the years, a plea agreement meant there was never a trial, but this weekend the brothers shared their firsthand accounts with the media for the first time in an episode of CBS’ “48 Hours.”

What happened on Feb. 20, 2003

That fateful night in the winter of 2003 began like any other. It was a Thursday, and 80s band Great White was set to be playing to a packed crowd. Right as the show started around 11 p.m., the band set off some pyrotechnics that lit the overhead sound foam on fire. 

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“Most of the crowd thought it was part of the show and didn’t move — didn’t react instantly,” survivor Linda Saran told host Jim Axelrod on the CBS special.

Scott James, former Channel 6 news director, recently wrote a book about the fire, and told Axelrod the pyrotechnics were called “fifteen by fifteens,” meaning they burn 15 feet high for 15 seconds. Just one issue, he said, was that the club had 12 foot ceilings.

Highly flammable foam — installed for soundproofing — lined the ceilings, walls, and even an exit door near the stage. When the pyrotechnics went off, the foam caught fire quickly. A few members of the band were able to escape through the exit near the stage, but it quickly became impassable. 

“The foam was raining down and the flames were dripping from the ceiling,” Saran told Axelrod. “It looked like it was raining black fire.”

Jeffrey Derderian was helping out at the bar that night, and said he and another employee ran towards the stage with a fire extinguisher.

“We tried to get as far as we could. We couldn’t make it,” he told Axelrod.

Saran described the crowd fleeing as a “riptide” and “surge of bodies” toward the exit. Though there were two other exits besides the now-blocked stage door, almost everyone headed for the front one, which they’d come in.

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According to The Boston Globe, an investigation by the Providence Journal later found that people inside only had 102 seconds to escape. Thick black smoke filled the club after just 90 seconds, the CBS special reported, trapping people inside. The entire building was engulfed in flames within 15 minutes.

Michael was in Florida at the time of the fire, and said he could barely understand Jeffrey when he called to tell him what was happening.

“He’s completely out of it,” Michael told Axelrod. “I couldn’t understand him, or understand the magnitude of what was going on there.”

Three people were charged for what happened that night: Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, and the band’s tour manager Daniel Biechele, who lit the pyrotechnics. Each of them faced 200 counts of involuntary manslaughter, and the attorney general convened a grand jury to review the case.

According to the Globe, Biechele pleaded guilty to 100 counts and served 12 months of a four-year sentence. Both Derderians pleaded no contest to 100 counts, but only one brother — Michael — served time in prison (two years and nine months, to be exact). Jeffrey was placed on probation for three years and ordered to serve 500 hours of community service.

Brothers Michael and Jeffrey Derderian, center left, and center right, depart Superior Court, in Providence, R.I., Friday, May 26, 2006. – (AP Photo/Andrew Dickerman, Pool)

What the Derderians want you to know

The brothers are asking why others weren’t held to account; specifically, the foam company and the fire marshal. Pointing to the contract, the Derderians are also saying they never gave permission for Great White to use pyrotechnics. The band was found to have set them off at another club without permission a few days before.

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A memo in the CBS special shows the brothers ordered sound foam from American Foam Corporation in 2000, yet tests later showed that the foam on the walls was not sound foam, but highly flammable packing foam. Foam salesman Barry Warner sent an anonymous fax to the attorney general’s office and local media saying the company wasn’t truthful with customers about the dangers of foam, the Globe reported, but that fax was never shared with the grand jury.

In the CBS special, the Derderians claim the fire marshal that inspected the club multiple times didn’t perform the right test on the foam. Michael described the process — which apparently includes cutting off a square inch of the foam, holding it with a clip, and lighting it on fire with a match.

“If he had done that, he would have told us, ‘take that stuff down, it’s solid gasoline,’” Michael said.

The marshal at the time, Denis P. Larocque, claimed he did not see the foam when questioned by the grand jury, CBS reported, and was not charged with a crime. According to the Globe, Rhode Island law grants immunity from criminal prosecution to the state fire marshal for actions and omissions made in the “good faith” performance of his duties.

“Why is it okay that the fire marshal is allowed to miss something or make a mistake, and what he did was just an oops, but what we did was criminal?” Jeffrey asked Axelrod.

What survivors are saying

Saran was a fan of Great White, and was offered free tickets and two t-shirts to work the merch table that night. She was even paying staff pricing for beers because she “knew a guy.” She was hiding under a table with a friend, and described a harrowing experience trying to escape. 

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“I said, you know what, we’re running out of time, and I knew the window was to my left so I said to Deb, stay here I’ll be right back,” Saran told Axelrod. “I stood up, I went over, put my hands against the glass, and I started kicking at that window, and it wouldn’t break. I went and laid down next to Deb and just waited to die.”

An off-duty officer had seen Saran kicking at the window, and ran to his car for a tire iron to break the window. She barely escaped the fire, and spent the next three weeks in a medically induced coma with second and third-degree burns over 34% of her body. 

Then college student Phil Barr was home for winter break, and popped in to see a show. It was his first time at the venue. Unlike others, when the fire started he ran towards the bar area exit, but tripped on a stool, fell, and passed out. When he came to, he said he remembers feeling weight on top of him.

“I’m pretty sure I crawled out from under another person to pull myself up,” he told Axelrod. “I ran across the room and I ran face-first into the wall. I felt the door and I heaved my shoulder into it, and fell down the stairs out that door. …It was getting harder and harder to breathe.”

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Barr also spent time in a coma, and had to relearn how to walk. He was once a competitive swimmer, and though doctors predicted he wouldn’t compete again, he eventually got back in the pool and into competitions.

Jody King knew his brother, Tracy King, was working as a bouncer at The Station that night. When he heard about the fire, he drove to the scene and walked around asking medics if he could see the bodies. Tracy was eventually confirmed dead.

King believes the Derderians aren’t the only people at fault, and is glad they’re speaking out.

“They blamed three. They should have blamed more … There are other people who should be responsible,” he said. “We never knew the whole story because the trial never happened, so everything really never came out.” 

Moving forward

There was never a trial for the Derderians, which means no testimony, cross-examination, or public presentation of evidence. The civil lawsuits were settled out of court, which still rubs some survivors the wrong way.

“They have said they were sorry, but never once did they say we screwed up,” Saran said. “If they stood up and said [we were] small business owners, we were inexperienced, we took shortcuts, we screwed up, I’d forgive them in a heartbeat.”

Well, it seems the brothers are doing just that.

“This happened on our doorstep, and it has our name attached to it forever,” Jeffrey told the Globe. “We understand that we’re sorry isn’t good enough. We take responsibility for the roles we played in the tragedy, and there isn’t a day that goes by that we don’t think about what happened.”

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