Blaze Could Prompt Criminal Charges

The owners of a nightclub where 96 people perished in a fast-moving fire denied giving a rock band permission to use the fireworks blamed for setting off the blaze, although the band's singer insisted the use of pyrotechnics was approved.

Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch said Friday a criminal investigation was under way to determine if any charges should be filed in connection with the deadly inferno at The Station nightclub.
"There could be a whole menu of charges," he said. "It could be manslaughter, it could be murder, it could be simple assault."

The heavy metal band Great White was playing its first song late Thursday when fireworks began spraying the stage with sparks. Within minutes, the venue was engulfed in flames and thick, black smoke.

Ninety-six people were burned to death or crushed in their frantic fight to escape; some 200 others were injured, 35 of them critically. The ages of the victims ranged from the teens to the late 30s.

Under the glare of floodlights, a dozen firefighters and other law enforcement officials used rakes to sift through the rubble Friday night as they searched for evidence and victims' belongings. A candlelight vigil also was held near the blackened site.

Rhode Island Gov. Don Carcieri said early Saturday that he believed all the bodies had been removed from the ruins of the building, an no additional deaths from among the injured were reported overnight.

"We're pretty well convinced there are no additional bodies there," he said.

Authorities warned it could take time to identify the victims. At hospitals around the region, anguished relatives pleaded for help in finding loved ones they feared were lost.

The governor said two more of the dead had been identified, bringing that total to nine, but no names were immediately released. Among those missing late Friday was Great White guitarist Ty Longley.

Twenty-five experts will be aiding with identifying the dead. The governor is urging families to provide dental records and other material that could help the process.

The club's owners say they were never told of Great White's plan to use pyrotechnics, a claim echoed by at least four other venues where Great White played in the past month.

"No permission was ever requested by the band or its agents to use pyrotechnics at The Station, and no permission was ever given," said Kathleen Hagerty, a lawyer representing club owners Michael and Jeffrey Derderian, who are brothers.

But Ed McPherson, the band's attorney, said the musicians had verbal permission to set off the fireworks, and the band's singer, Jack Russell, said Great White's manager Dan Biechele had made sure the use of pyrotechnics was approved.

Paul Woolnough, president of Great White's management company, said Biechele "always checks" with club officials before pyrotechnics are used. Biechele could not be located for comment.

The Rhode Island show was part of the band's nationwide tour. Great White used pyrotechnics during three other shows - Feb. 7 at the Pinellas Park Expo Center near Tampa, Fla.; Feb. 13 in Allentown, Pa.; and Tuesday in Bangor, Maine - without discussing it with promoters or the venue, according to concert organizers or their spokesmen.

Domenic Santana, the owner of the Stone Pony club in Asbury Park, N.J., said Great White failed to tell him they were using pyrotechnics during a Valentine's Day show.

"Our stage manager didn't even know it until it was done," said Santana. "My sound man freaked out because of the heat and everything, and they jeopardized the health and the safety of our patrons."

Officials at other clubs said Great White asked before using pyrotechnics and complied when they were turned down. One of those venues was the Oxygen Nightclub in Evansville, Ind., where the band played Feb. 3.

Fire officials said the club had passed a fire inspection Dec. 31, but didn't have a city permit for pyrotechnics. West Warwick Fire Chief Charles Hall said the building was not required to have a sprinkler system because it was built before 1976.

State law requires a special license for detonating pyrotechnics. The West Warwick Town Council would also have to sign off on any local establishment's application for the license.

"To use pyrotechnics in a building like that, bad judgment would be an understatement," said councilor Leo Costantino. "It's an old wooden building with low ceilings."

The capacity of The Station was 300, but the number of victims and survivors indicated more were inside. Carcieri says the crowd was more like 340 people.

The death toll rose steadily Friday as firefighters picked through the smoking ruins of the single-story building.

It was the worst nightclub fire since 165 people were killed at the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Ky., in 1977. It also came less than a week after 21 people were killed in a stampede at a Chicago nightspot.

Witnesses and fire officials described a voracious fire that tore through the building in minutes.

"I never knew a place could burn so fast," said Robin Petrarca, 44, who said the smoke was so thick she couldn't see an exit just 5 feet away.

Patricia Belanger stood trembling outside Rhode Island Hospital, clutching a photo of her daughter, Dina DeMaio, who was working at the club as a waitress to earn extra money for herself and her 7-year-old son.

Belanger said she had not been able to find her daughter and was unable to tell her grandson about his mother's possible death.

"He knows his mother didn't come back," she said.

News of the blaze prompted Rhode Islanders - from bank managers, religious leaders and hockey fans - to offer what assistance they could.

After the Red Cross announced a blood shortage early Friday, the state's blood banks were overwhelmed with those wanting to give blood to aid some of the people injured at the nightclub.

Fans of the minor league hockey team the Providence Bruins chipped in about $7,500 during the team's game Friday night against the Lowell Lock Monsters, while the team's owners and the American Hockey League each donated $1,000.

Several banks established victim relief funds and began accepting donations. Nortek Holdings Inc., one of the state's largest employers, announced it would donate $50,000 to assist victims' families.

Catholic Charities of Rhode Island also established an emergency fund.

"All of us in Rhode Island are stunned and grieved by the horrific fire in West Warwick," the Most Rev. Robert E. Mulvee, Bishop of the Diocese of Providence, said in a statement. "There were so many lives lost, so many injured, so many lives devastated by this tragedy."

Cable provider Cox Communications set up donation boxes at 10 service centers around the state. United Healthcare offered free, 24-hour telephone counseling for families and others affected by the tragedy.