Daniel Biechele, 29, could have gotten as much as 10 years behind bars under a deal he struck with prosecutors in February, when he pleaded guilty to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter.
"The greatest sentence that can be imposed upon you, has been imposed upon you by yourself," Superior Court Judge Francis Darigan Jr. told Biechele, drawing sobs from some of those in the courtroom.
The sentence came after two days of anguished testimony from the victims' families, who told of college graduations they would never see, grandchildren they would never hold, and such grief that they could not get out of bed in the morning.
Biechele was the tour manager for heavy metal band Great White when on Feb. 20, 2003, he lit a pyrotechnics display that ignited highly flammable foam that lined the walls and ceiling of The Station nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island. The foam was used as soundproofing and was placed there by the owners after neighbors complained about noise from the club.
Many of the 100 people who were killed that night either were quickly overcome by fumes emitted by the foam or became trapped in a crush at the front door.
Biechele is the first person to be sentenced for the fire. The owners of the club are awaiting trial on manslaughter charges.
Biechele offered his first public comments about what happened, apologizing repeatedly and choking back tears.
"I know how this tragedy has devastated me, but I can only begin to understand what the people who have lost loved ones have endured," he told the court. "I don't know that I'll ever forgive myself for what happened that night, so I can't expect anyone else to."
"I never wanted anyone to be hurt in any way," he said. "I never imagined that anyone ever would be."
Biechele's lawyers had asked the judge to show mercy and sentence Biechele to community service. They said he is the only person to accept responsibility and is truly remorseful, having written letters of apology to the families of the victims that will be given to them later.
"I ask you to consider this: Dan Biechele is the only man in this tragedy to stand up and say I did something wrong," said his attorney, Thomas Briody. "He's the only man to say 'I apologize."'
Prosecutors had asked for the maximum sentence allowed under the deal they struck with Biechele in February, when heto 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter for igniting pyrotechnics without a permit — 10 years to serve in prison.
"The devastation wrought by the conduct of the defendant is unparalleled in our state's history," prosecutor Randall White said.
The fire was the fourth-deadliest nightclub blaze in U.S. history.
The sentencing follows two days offrom the families of about half the people killed. Some parents told the court that they have contemplated suicide. Other relatives said they could no longer work and have become so ill they can barely get out of bed in the morning.
Claire Bruyere, whose daughter, Bonnie Lynn Hamelin, 27, was among those killed, said her daughter was her best friend.
"Now all I have to look forward to is death, so we can be together again," Bruyere said.
The owners of the nightclub, brothers Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, are accused of installing the flammable foam. They have pleaded not guilty to— two counts for each person killed, under separate legal theories. Michael Derderian's trial is tentatively scheduled July 31; his brother's trial has not been set.
Biechele has said he Michael Derderian gave him permission to use the pyrotechnics at The Station; the Derderians have said he did not have permission.
Biechele and the Derderians are also among dozens of defendants named in a massive lawsuit filed in federal court by fire survivors and victims' relatives.