Justice finally in sight after three painful years

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

Three years ago today, over 400 people were trapped in a raging fire in a Rhode Island nightclub. The Station, a small club in the mill town of West Warwick, was packed with mostly middle-aged ’80s rock fans when the blaze started, ignited by the pyrotechnics of the band Great White. Sparks spread up the cheap and horrifically combustible foam soundproofing that lined the walls of the club and engulfed the whole building in less than three minutes.

Exactly 100 people died as a result, and over 200 more were injured.

Like any tragedy, the fire created a storm of pain and confusion that will stain the state of Rhode Island for years to come. It has devastated a community and bankrupted a town already stuck in a rapid decline. In such a close-knit community, nearly everyone in the state was connected to someone in that fire. However, outside of Rhode Island the events have been swept out of the media spotlight, and seemingly forgotten outside the northeast.

The fire itself was immediately dismissed as tragic but unimportant in the eyes of both the U.S. government and the media. Despite having issued a state of emergency in neighboring Worcester, Massachusetts upon the deaths of six firemen in a warehouse blaze in 1999, the government refused to do the same for West Warwick. As a result, millions of dollars of needed aid never made it to Rhode Island, forcing both the town and its victims into massive debt in their attempts to recover from the blaze.

Just as the government dismissed the tragedy, so did the national media. In the days following the fire, it was impossible to find coverage of the blaze in outlets outside New England. It was clear that no one wanted to deal with the situation except those who were connected to it.

There are several causes for this ignorance. The people trapped in the fire that night were anything but glamorous. They were generally middle-aged wage workers — tattoo artists, sales clerks, waitresses, and even former strippers. The only victim most media outlets found interesting enough to focus on was Great White guitarist Ty Longley, who perished in the blaze.

Another reason for the lack of attention to this tragedy is its setting. The Station was a tiny club for washed-up bands in a place most of America couldn’t find on a map. With nothing immediately relatable to the general public, most of the national media simply gave up rather than dig deeper. Only a search of the archives of local news in New England can uncover the true stories of what happened that night, and the brave tales of recovery that the whole state had to collectively undergo.

Though much of America has forgotten about what happened that night, the pain has yet to subside in Rhode Island. It has taken nearly the three years since the fire to bring those who are responsible to trial. However, the recent events in the courts offer the hope of closure to some of the victims and their families.

Three men were charged with over 200 counts of involuntary manslaughter apiece for their negligence: club owners Michael and Jeffery Derderian and Great White’s tour manager Daniel Biechele. Though these charges were levied in late 2003, their trials were pushed back to 2006 as lawyers on each side weighed their cases. However, the first steps toward justice came early, when on February 7 this year, Biechele took responsibility and pleaded guilty to avoid going to trial. Though this ensures that Biechele will serve jail time, his plea also ensures that he will serve no more than 10 years in prison — a sentence far too light for actions that killed 100 people.

Though Biechele is not completely responsible for the deaths that night, he should take the brunt of the blame for the events. This was not the only concert where he set off fireworks in a venue that did not give him permission; at least three other places have confirmed that they were unaware that the band would use fireworks in its show.

However, the use of fireworks in the Station was extremely negligent — his fireworks shot off an eight-foot plume in a club where the ceilings were, at most, approximately nine feet high. Common sense should have told him that something bad was bound to happen.

Biechele’s sentencing, scheduled for May 8, will have a major effect on how the trial against the Derderians is run. The two currently share the blame for the fire. Even though Biechele was responsible for the use of fireworks, the Derderians lined their club with cheap and extremely flammable foam soundproofing, which allowed the flames to spread in a rapid and deadly manner.

Though the Derderians obviously share some of the blame, they had no idea what was in store when Great White began to play that night. They never cleared the use of fireworks in their club, and though the fire hazards were still apparent, Biechele’s recklessness and negligence essentially guaranteed that the club would go up in flames.

The Derderian brothers are clearly to blame for the overcrowding of their club and violations of the fire codes, but the tragedy was not inevitable. Biechele’s use of unauthorized fireworks was the catalyst behind everything that happened that night.

The fact that Biechele will serve no more than 10 years in jail for sparking the fire that killed 100 people and ruined the lives of many others is a joke. We can only hope that the families of those who had their lives so drastically changed one night three years ago can take solace in the fact that, at the very least, someone has stepped up to take blame.