The Station Nightclub Fire, America’s Deadliest Rock Concert
Publication Year: 2012
Published by: University Press of New England
Title Page, Copyright Page
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1 | Sifting the Ashes
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February 21, 2003, dawned stunningly crisp and cold in New England. Over a foot of fresh snow had fallen the previous two days, and conditions were what skiers jokingly call “severe clear” — cloudless blue skies, bright sun, temperatures in the teens, and windchill in single digits. It was, in short, postcard picture-perfect. On this morning, however, the images being snapped by news photographers in the town of West Warwick, Rhode Island, were hardly Currier...
2 | Mill Town Watering Hole
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If West Warwick, Rhode Island, were a car, it would be a 1957 Studebaker — functional in its day, but now well past its prime. It has the look and feel of a place that time, and certainly prosperity, have long since passed by. Driving through the town today, one can catch glimpses of its industrial past. Hulking textile mills, some boarded up, some converted to “luxury condos,” line the Pawtuxet River’s banks. Mill workers’ duplexes still squat in...
3 | Rock Impresarios
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“It’s a place where good bands go to die,” quipped Steven Scarpetti years before the fire. Scarpetti, a promotions executive at radio station WHJY, was referring to The Station’s prestige among third-rate concert venues, but he could as well have been talking about the club’s potential for actual tragedy. When the Derderian brothers bought The Station from Howard Julian in March of 2000, they knew little about operating a rock club. But they would...
4 | Only Rock 'N' Roll
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For most, the term “hardscrabble life” conjures up images of dustbowl Oklahoma, or Appalachia. People tend not to think of America’s smallest state, with its hundred-plus miles of lush coastline, as Steinbeck country, where life is hard, and fun times, few. But Rhode Island of the twenty-first century is not the Gilded Age mansions of Newport. Neither is it those Industrial Age monuments to middle-class...
5 | That Ain't No Way to Have Fun, Son
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To the right of the aisle, immediately behind the driver, lay a table littered with empty soda cans, a cigarette pack, and CDs. To the left was a sitting area with cracked Naugahyde bench seats. Farther back, twelve bunks were stacked three high, six on either side of a narrow corridor — about as commodious as aboard a nuclear submarine. If groupies were ever invited “back to the bus,” they would have to be contortionists. This was the “luxury...
6 | Lucky Day
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It wasn’t often that rock idols, even past-their-prime players like Great White front man Jack Russell, graced the streets of West Warwick. So when his tour bus rolled into town, the locals were starstruck — even if they weren’t quite sure who he was. But they could see from his high-mileage face and full-sleeve tattoos that he lived a life the average Rhode Island warehouseman or carpenter could only dream of. He was very, very cool. ...
7 | Yours, In Fire Safety . . .
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As the hour approached for Great White to go on, Mike and Sandy Hoogasian huddled together facing the stage, feeling the crush and the excitement of the crowd. They tried to take in the whole scene, but the sheer number of bodies, shoulder to shoulder and back to belly, made appreciation of anyone beyond a six-foot radius impossible. Mike thought back to his bachelor party at The Station two years earlier, when his firefighter...
8 | Suds, Sparks, and Sponsorship
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This was the between-set Patter of emcee Mike Gonsalves, radio station WHJY’s late-night DJ, who went by the stage name “Dr. Metal.” Just five feet six, Gonsalves made up for his modest stature with boundless energy and a 100-watt smile. As he tossed T-shirts to the crowd and exhorted them to drink all the Budweiser in the place, directly behind him Great White’s road manager, Dan Biechele, set up an apparatus consisting of cardboard...
9 | Film at Eleven
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The month of February 2003 was not a good one for nightclub-goers. In the early morning hours of February 17, an overcrowded club on Chicago’s South Side called E2 was the scene of twenty-one deaths when someone (a club security guard was suspected) discharged pepper spray on the second-floor dance floor to break up a fight between two women. A panicked crowd surged to the only exit it knew — at the head of a steep flight...
10 | This Way Out
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West Warwick Patrolman Mark Knott had been standing by the ticket counter with fellow officer Anthony Bettencourt when Great White took the stage. Just as the band launched into its opening song, Knott’s radio crackled: he was needed at a domestic disturbance elsewhere in town. The officer responded by heading out The Station’s double front doors. Knott paused on the concrete landing outside, bracing himself against...
11 | Cause for Alarm
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We’ve all gazed upward in public spaces to contemplate those little inverted metal rosettes that dot the ceiling at regular intervals — fire sprinklers. New or old, most utilize the elegantly simple design of multiple sprinkler heads, affixed to a constantly charged water line. Each sprinkler head has its own heat-activated trigger (a fusible metal link or liquid-filled glass vial designed to break at a predetermined temperature), so that all heads...
12 | I'm with the Band
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Mike Iannone had come to the station to see Great White, but also to support his friends whose band, Fathead, opened the evening. Mike, who had helped Fathead load-in on previous occasions, was very familiar with the club’s layout, including the stage door on the right. He was also familiar with the use of pyrotechnics at the club, having walked out of a concert there in 2002 when a band called Rebellion used flashpots on either...
13 | Fighting for Air
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“Fire is an exothermic oxidation reaction that proceeds at such a rate that it generates detectable heat and light.” So begins a standard textbook on the science of fire. However scientifically accurate that definition may be, it does not begin to convey fire’s power to consume wood, flesh, and the very oxygen that sustains life — so rapidly that escape from it may be impossible. Describing fire as a “self-sustaining chain reaction requiring combustible fuel, oxygen...
14 | A Snowball's Chance in Hell
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No patrons entering The Station through its front doors on the night of the fire anticipated that they’d be leaving any other way. Certainly, Shamus Horan, a twenty-seven-year-old master pipefitter from Coventry, Rhode Island, did not. He was among several quite ordinary people who would perform extraordinary deeds that night. On the evening of the Great White concert, Horan stopped at The Station to see if there were any tickets left. Sold out of actual tickets, Andrea Mancini...
15 | The Way of All Flesh
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We see it every day, and there may be entirely too much of it for our liking, but by and large we know about as much about our skin as we do about our spleen. Sure, it’s probably important, but what our skin does, and how it does it, remains a mystery to most of us. That is, until our skin is burned. Then, its complexity, regenerative powers, and critical role in our survival become all too apparent. We can live without...
16 | Domino Theory
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Some say a girl was the first to fall. With the flood of patrons streaming out the double front doors of The Station, there began an exodus that, allowed to continue, would have saved most in the club. Erin Pucino, the Derderians’ gas station clerk who had attended the concert on a free pass with her closest friend, Laurie Hussey, was part of this human tide. As long as people at the front of the pack exited the front doors as fast as those in the rear needed to move, the system remained in...
17 | The Sound and the Fury
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“Oh, my God! Oh, my God! I have children!” screamed one woman at the back of the pack, imploring the crowd at the front door to miraculously part and make an exception for her. But she was not exceptional. Sixty-four children under the age of eighteen would lose one or both parents at The Station that night. Her terrified voice was picked up by Brian Butler’s video camera, just as he exited the front doors. Butler’s real-time record of the fire continued...
18 | Into the Breach
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Raul “Mike” Vargas, the GNC store manager, had been standing about three rows back from the stage when fire broke out. He was aware of the stage door, but saw that some people who first headed toward it were turning back. He heard someone yell, “This is for the band only.” So Vargas joined the human tidal wave rushing the front doors. When people fell in front of him, the force of the crush behind him caused...
19 | Solid Gasoline
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In 1970, three nightclub owners in Saint-Laurent-du-Pont, France, thought it would be a great idea to line their club’s walls and ceiling with spray-on polyurethane foam, sculpting it to resemble a grotto. The “Club Cinq-Sept” burned furiously after a dropped match ignited a chair, then the foam, killing 146 people (including two of the club’s owners) in less than five minutes. It didn’t help that the owners had installed one-way turnstiles at the...
20 | The Missing
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Sights and sounds of the station fire were broadcast locally, nationwide, and worldwide within forty-five minutes of its outbreak, thanks to a film-sharing arrangement between WPRI-TV Channel 12 and other networks. This caused family and friends of Station patrons to flock to the site when calls to their loved ones’ cell phones went unanswered. The first arrivals stood by at the Cowesett Inn while the injured were triaged. Other families...
21 | Artifacts of Tragedy
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Forensic archaeology is a relatively young discipline — an outgrowth of the science that, more traditionally, unearths artifacts to learn about historical events or ancient civilizations. Forensic, or “disaster” archaeology, however, applies the techniques and disciplines of archaeology to recent tragic events, serving more practical objectives — usually, victim identification and repatriation of their personal effects. Additionally, the fruits of forensic archaeology...
22 | Circling the Wagons
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It’s a generally accepted notion in the law that statements made by witnesses contemporaneous with a critical event tend to be more trustworthy than accounts rendered long after the fact. For this reason, court rules are loosened to allow into evidence hearsay recitations of “excited utterances” made out of court in the heat of a critical moment. On the other hand, time for research and reflection can sometimes contribute to the accuracy...
23 | Crime and Punishment
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Once the basic facts of the station fire became known, there was a public outcry, fueled by talk radio and media reports, for criminal prosecution of those responsible for the tragedy. In the weeks following the fire, an additional four hospitalized victims died of their injuries, raising the total fatalities to one hundred. Considering the unlicensed pyrotechnics, the overcrowding, and the use of flammable foam as soundproofing, surely...
24 | "First, Survival; Then, Function; Then, Cosmetics"
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The Station fire criminal prosecutions were not completed until more than three years after the tragedy. Over that period of time, it might be understandable if some people lost full appreciation for the personal toll exacted by the defendants’ criminal negligence. But one group never would. They were the most seriously burned victims of the fire. For those fortunate enough to survive, no part of their “sentence”...
25 | Risky Business
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In most states, the plaintiffs’ trial bar is home to a handful of respected practitioners with extensive trial experience, rigorous analytical skills, and absolutely titanic egos. Rhode Island is no exception. As often as not, these individuals have practiced together in the past and, after going their separate ways, spend the rest of their professional lives trying to prove that they are far and away superior to their former colleagues. Some do this...
26 | Making the Tough Cases
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“Why don’t you sue the Dixie Cup manufacturer? I’ll bet there were some in the ladies’ room, and they burned, too,” suggested one denizen of the radio call-in shows. These and other criticisms were leveled at the plaintiffs’ attorneys as we struggled to identify all possible defendants before the statute of limitations expired. In so doing, we cast a wider net than some lay observers would have preferred; however, when the dust finally...
27 | Burning Question
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Just past the sign welcoming visitors to Kelso, Washington (“Home of the Highlanders”), is the entrance to a dingy industrial park. Nestled between the Truck & Axle Service Corporation and a local airstrip is a large gray metal building where grown men play with matches. And building materials. And substances that people are stupid enough to use as building materials. ...
28 | Divining the Incalculable
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On December 27, 2007, a few months after the first civil defendant agreed to a settlement, Duke University law professor Francis E. McGovern met with an apprehensive group of thirty Station fire victims and families in an unused classroom of the Community College of Rhode Island. He wore a neatly pressed blue blazer, with his thinning, surprisingly long hair curling over its collar. Most of those present had never set foot in a college classroom...
29 | Memento Mori
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Five years to the day after the fire, four shivering people, wrapped tightly in winter coats, have paused to reflect. They are standing on a tiny piece of ground, smaller than a house lot, where one hundred homemade crosses have been arranged in a rough oval, each with a white balloon tethered to it. At each cross there are attempts to individualize a memorial — photos of the deceased, or even votive candles. Other objects are left as reminders...
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Change was inevitable for the victims of The Station fire. The tragedy left some physically scarred, but mentally strong. Others, who were spared serious physical injury, remain ravaged by post-traumatic stress syndrome. Specific individuals’ resilience in the aftermath of the event has been completely unpredictable. Many have bounced back, but for others the fire remains the single defining event of their lives. ...
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This book would not have been possible without the meticulous research of Jenna Wims Hashway, who examined thousands of documents in order to locate all the important stuff. Her editing of chapter drafts was, thankfully, both helpful and humane. Sincere praise is also due the many newspaper reporters who covered the Station nightclub fire. From the moment their police radio scanners first crackled with the news, up to and through its legal aftermath...
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Notes & Sources
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After pleas of guilty and nolo contendere were entered by Dan Biechele and the Derderian brothers, the Providence Journal, the Associated Press, and the Boston Globe filed a public records request for the Rhode Island attorney general’s entire file concerning the Station nightclub fire. In an unprecedented concession to public disclosure, on November 29, 2006, Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch released more than three thousand pages of documents...
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Page Count: 324
Illustrations: 18 illus.
Publication Year: 2012