From sorrow to second-guessing

Times Staff Writer

There were so many details to take care of that night, so many things to go wrong.

It was almost show time at the Station. The old wood-frame nightclub pulsed with an excited mob of heavy-metal music fanatics from blue-collar towns across Rhode Island and Massachusetts. They were ready to rock, primed for a rare visit by the L.A.-based band Great White.

The group had lost some luster from its 1980s glory days, but was soldiering on with a whirlwind club tour. Its droning anthems blared from the dashboard stereos of pickups and SUVs inching along a two-lane road toward the suburban Providence club.

Club manager Kevin Beese was at the bar, working the beer taps. Paul Vanner, the Station's gangly sound man, was hunched over his monitors. Great White singer Jack Russell had vanished into a tattoo parlor, leaving tour manager Dan Biechele to take care of last-minute preparations. Club co-owner Jeffrey Derderian was at the door, odd man out among the mullet haircuts and leather jackets. By 10:30 p.m., Beese recalled, 310 patrons had already surged past the bouncers -- 10 more than the club's legal capacity. Another 50 headbangers waited outside in the bitter February night.

At 11 p.m., the house lights dimmed. In darkness, Biechele set off a brace of fiery pinwheel fans filled with tubed sparklers known as "gerbs." The sparks were supposed to burn briefly and safely. But incendiary white rain ignited dark strips of combustible foam soundproofing on the wall behind the stage. "You could see the stuff on the walls glowing red," Vanner recalled.

But the firestorm that trapped and killed 99 people within minutes was triggered by more than the spinning fire wheels. Communications breakdowns, errant cost cutting and safety failures mounted in the weeks and months before the Feb. 20 tragedy. Lapses in judgment and oversight appear to have taken place among band members, the club's owners and staff, even public officials charged with ensuring the safety of the Station's patrons.

They were mostly the errors of music industry veterans who prided themselves on their savvy -- middle-aged journeymen who can be found in any American nightclub, stoking rock dreams at a cash premium.

"Maybe we weren't a perfect club, but in Rhode Island, we had a good name," said Beese, 38. "I guess there were things we missed."

Great White's "pyro" show was ignited in violation of Rhode Island law. A succession of other apparently faulty decisions are still being unraveled by state prosecutors and police investigators. The band claims the owners gave advance permission to set off pyrotechnics, but Derderian and his brother, Michael, who co-own the club, said they never gave or were asked for consent.

The fire appeared to be fed by the highly flammable foam soundproofing on the club's walls. Investigators are trying to determine whether that plastic soundproofing was banned by Rhode Island safety laws -- and if West Warwick city fire inspectors failed in their duty to detect the material. The Station's overcrowding could also have been a factor in slowing terrified patrons as they tried to flee the rapidly spreading flames.

Great White's surviving members -- guitarist Ty Longley died in the blaze -- began testifying before a state grand jury this week that has convened in the widening criminal investigation.

Tour manager Biechele, identified by Beese and others as the man who ignited the pyrotechnics, hired a local lawyer. So have the Derderians, whose business records have been seized. Relatives of two victims filed wrongful-death lawsuits Tuesday against the band, the club owners, a fire inspector and others.

"We're looking at the actions of any number of people," said Rhode Island Atty. Gen. Patrick Lynch, who is heading the state investigation.

Rhode Island state fire laws set out clear guidelines for the use of flammable materials in commercial establishments. Accelerants like those used by Great White require a city permit; a separate state "certificate of competency" is required for anyone triggering gerbs or other fireworks. Plastic urethane foam is banned in gathering places that cater to the public unless it is treated with fire-retardant chemicals."The reality is it's a very loosely regulated area. People who work in clubs and the bands that come through don't always communicate well," said one lawyer involved in the case. "Rock groups aren't known for their command structures, and clubs cut corners. It's a recipe for disaster."

Beese and others who worked and performed at the Station say they were unaware of some laws governing the use of fireworks. Pyrotechnic displays were used rarely at the club, Beese insisted, slipped in by musicians eager to win a reputation for outrageousness.

"You'd hear: 'Oh, we're just gonna do a little smoke and confetti.' And then they'd take it to the next level," Beese said. "They'd get away with whatever they could."

Hours before the Station fire, Beese said, he talked repeatedly with Biechele, 25, who handled Great White's arrangements. "Pyro never came up."

Biechele's lawyer in Providence, Thomas G. Briody, said that a week before the show, the tour manager spoke with a "high-ranking club representative" who told him "the Station wanted pyrotechnics."

Vanner, the club's sound man, recalls being told by Michael Derderian that he had handled Great White's booking arrangements with Biechele. But the Station owner "never said anything about any pyro," Vanner said.

Biechele "always sought permission from promoters or club representatives before pyrotechnics were used," Briody said. Lead singer Russell also has claimed that the band had consent to light the stage sparklers.

Great White has been accused by other East Coast club owners of setting off pyrotechnics without permission. State officials in Asbury Park, N.J., and Bangor, Maine, are investigating fire acts during the band's shows.

Musicians who ply New England's heavy-metal club land say that exploding gerbs and flashpots were routine amusements at the Station and many venues along the circuit. Fire shows were tolerated by the club's hierarchy, they said, as just another trick of the trade.

"The Station was used to bands doing pyro. We did it, and we weren't the first," said Shawn Fox, a former drummer in Kisstory, a group that played the club Aug. 1, mimicking heavy-metal legend KISS. Five times over a 50-minute performance, Fox said, the band touched off knee-high halos of flame.

Fox said he discussed the band's plans for pyrotechnics several weeks before the show with Beese, who, according to Fox, booked most of the local acts that played there. Fox said that they worked out an informal oral agreement that led to Kisstory's pyrotechnics.

"I told him we did the whole KISS show, pyro, fire-breathing, the works," Fox said. "Kevin said, 'OK, sounds cool.' "

Beese concedes having occasional discussions about fireworks. But he said that Vanner and the Derderians had more responsibility than he did for "what happened on stage." Vanner, 41, said that three months ago he warned Michael Derderian of his safety concerns after 12 incidents in which metal bands set off pyrotechnics under the low-hanging drop ceiling.

"It was like throwing dice," Vanner said. Michael Derderian seemed to get the message, Vanner recalled. Until the night of the fire, he said, pyro acts had stopped. But Vanner said the Derderians never gave explicit orders banning pyrotechnics.

After a tearful apology by Jeffrey Derderian, the owners have stuck to a statement they provided in the first hours after the fire. "No permission was ever requested by the band," they said through Michael Derderian's attorney, Kathleen M. Hagerty. "None was given." Neither Hagerty nor Jeffrey Pine, Jeffrey Derderian's lawyer, returned repeated calls.

The Derderians were newcomers to the heavy metal circuit in March 2000 when they took over the Station from its previous owner. Michael Derderian, 41, a former stockbroker, tended to bookings and business deals. Jeffrey Derderian, 36, who had a full-time television news job in Boston, concentrated on public relations and personal arrangements, said Richard Lang, a family friend.

The Station was a 50-year-old fixture in West Warwick, a blue-collar suburb near Route 95. Businesses withered at the site until owners began booking heavy metal acts there in the 1990s.

The Derderians sought a steady diet of cover bands and fallen metal heroes. The headliner shows, Beese said, drew crowds as large as 400, well beyond the club's legal capacity.

But by late last year, the brothers seemed to be "burning out," Lang said. Jeff Derderian moved back to Providence, tired of the grinding commute to night shows. Michael was embroiled in a divorce. Neighbors were up in arms over the din blaring from the club's massive sound system.

The Derderians responded by ordering all doors shut during rehearsals and shows. Acoustic foam baffling was added to the walls around the stage.

Last week, investigators retrieved polyurethane samples from American Foam Corp., a Rhode Island packaging firm. One investigator said the use of non-retardant plastic foam "is clearly a focus."

American Foam President Aram DerManouelian confirmed that in June 2000, a Station representative ordered $575 of foam strips. The 25 egg-crate sheets were designed for packaging, not soundproofing. They are highly combustible, DerManouelian said, and are half the price of fire retardant varieties that the firm also sells.

Under Rhode Island law, combustible baffling "shall not be used" in facilities catering to the public. But during three annual inspections of the club as recently as December, West Warwick fire inspectors made no mention of the material. West Warwick officials now acknowledge the oversight and are investigating how an inspector missed the substandard foam.

"They didn't tell us what they wanted it for," DerManouelian said. A court affidavit released this week suggested that a company salesman persuaded the owners to buy the substandard foam. The salesman said the affidavit is not an accurate account.

But the club owners "had to know what they were ordering," DerManouelian said.

Neither Beese nor Vanner said they were told about the foam's flammability. "It never came up," Vanner said. "They just put it up and that was it."

The Derderians were not around on Feb. 20 when three members of Great White showed up at 1:45 p.m. to prepare for the night's show. The musicians, minus Russell, carted in a truckload of instruments to load onstage. Beese went over the band's checklist with tour manager Biechele. Great White wanted 20 towels, 10 Healthy Choice chicken dinners, two cases of bottled water. "Never once did he mention they were doing pyro," Beese said.

Vanner, who showed up to fine-tune the club's sound, recalls seeing none of the "V-tube" pinwheel fans, cables and igniters that would have hinted of the band's intentions. Jeffrey Derderian showed up around 7:30 p.m. Attired like other club workers in a black "Security" T-shirt, he checked on bar supplies. Then he went to the front door to watch the crowd and greet a television news crew arriving to film at the Station for a feature on club safety.

As the Station's sound system cranked out metal rock classics, the lights drew up on a room filled with die-hards. A middle-aged head-banger in a coonskin cap and buckskin fringe howled rebel yells at the crowd's edge. Dr. Metal, a Providence disc jockey, handed out T-shirts.

Vanner was prepping the soundboard just before 11 when Biechele suddenly appeared. He needed a flashlight. "He didn't say what he wanted it for and I didn't ask," Vanner said. Just then, the lights dimmed and Dr. Metal introduced Great White to its bellowing fans.

Back at the bar drawing beers, Beese finally relaxed. The heavy lifting was done. It was Great White's show now. He was still working the taps when the white firelight caught his eye.

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