Club Owner Speaks Out On R.I. Fire

The Station nightclub where over 59 people died in a late night fire on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2003 in West Warwick, R.I., is seen from the air, Friday, Feb. 21, 2003. Fire apparatus and other emergency vehicles were still on the scene along with construction equipment to begin to remove the debris.
A day after family members visited the charred site of a deadly nightclub fire, the state attorney general said the nightclub owners have not answered questions from investigators about the blaze that killed 97 people.

As CBS News Correspondent Lee Cowan reports, the single story, wooden building was well over its occupancy limit when a band's pyrotechnic display caught the ceiling on fire.

After State Attorney General Patrick Lynch said Monday that Jeffrey Derderian has not answered questions since Thursday night Derderian gave his first interview to a Boston station saying that he and his brother want to cooperate with the investigation "in any way" they can. Derderian says he and his brother are devastated by what happened.

Lynch had criticized the brothers for staying silent during in the aftermath of the fire. "They have not responded to our request to answer questions. They don't nor does anyone else have to, but I think we're all looking for answers here," said Lynch.

In an earlier statement, the brothers had said they have been in touch with state officials since Friday morning.

The nightmare was caught on tape by CBS's WPRI, the station who had just hired one of the club's owners as a reporter.

"It is very difficult to express what I experienced at the club that evening, trying to get people out safely, please know I tried," said club owner Jeffrey Derderian.

WPRI assigned Jeff Derderian to do a story on building safety and he decided to shoot his own club as an example. But in a statement, WPRI insisted, "there was no plan to publicize or promote The Station nightclub in any way."

But Lynch wants more answers from the brothers.

Lynch would not comment on whether search warrants had been sought or executed, but said: "As a part of any investigation, sometimes search warrants are necessary." He also said it was premature to say whether a grand jury should be impaneled.

Phone messages left with the Derderians' attorney were not immediately returned.

Lynch said the heavy metal band Great White, whose pyrotechnic display was the apparent cause of the fire, has been cooperative. The band has returned to Los Angeles without guitarist Ty Longley, whose name was officially added to the list of dead Monday.

"The band's a mess," said band attorney Ed McPherson on ABC's "Good Morning America."

According to Cowan, Great White says it got permission from the club to ignite the fireworks. The club's owners say that's not true. But apparently this incident wasn't a first.

A video shows the band called Lovin' Kry using fireworks at The Station almost identical to the ones that caused the fire.

"Every time we ever played anywhere we used it unless the club would tell us no, but at The Station we used it every time but once," says band leader David Vaccaro.

"They had ample opportunity to tell us to knock it off," claims Vaccaro.

Meanwhile, Gov. Don Carcieri said Monday that 13 more victims had been identified, bringing the total of confirmed dead to 55. About 80 survivors remain hospitalized; about half were listed in critical condition.

Carcieri said he asked the federal government to declare a disaster, which would make the state eligible for federal aid.

The governor said he spoke to President Bush by telephone Monday. The president, Carcieri said, "expressed great sympathy, great compassion for what we're going through here." After the Sept. 11 attacks, the governor said, Bush "very much understands the emotional aspect of this."

Investigators are trying to determine whether the soundproofing material that burst into flames at the club was a highly flammable type that shouldn't have been installed in the first place. State law bars flammable acoustic material like polyurethane foam from the walls of gathering spaces like bars.

"If it was (polyurethane), then the governor's going want an answer to the question, 'Why was it there?"' said the governor's spokesman, Jeff Neal.

Soundproofing experts who have seen video of the disaster say they believe the material used at the Station was polyurethane foam, a commonly used, inexpensive alternative to fire-resistant panels many experts prefer.

"It's a common mistake many people make, not evaluating their materials," said P.J. Nash, a national soundproofing distributor in San Diego. "Polyurethane foam is extremely flammable, and if you breathe that smoke, it's going to knock you out in a minute."

The state has started a criminal investigation into the fire, which also injured 180 people.

Meanwhile, thousands of relatives, co-workers and friends joined together in a pair of memorials Monday and pledged to see each other through the disaster.

"It's so sad, but so nice to see all these people come together," said Kim Ondrick, who attended a vigil at the West Warwick Civic Center with her friend, Sherry Lariviere.

The two used to work at The Station, the club that burned to ashes in Thursday's fire. They went to the vigil after visiting the grim scene.

"It doesn't seem real," Lariviere said. "We're still in shock."

The 2,000-seat civic center was standing-room only, with people lining the walls to hear tributes to the dead. Among the crowd were school bus drivers who had worked with Robert Reisner, 29, and drove his bus to the service. They remembered the 1980s rock-'n'-roll fan fondly.

"There is no doubt in my mind that he was letting people out of the club in front of him," Danny Manns recalled. "He was a gentleman."

At a service at St. Gregory the Great Church in nearby Warwick, about 400 mourners sang hymns and prayed for victims. One pastor asked grieving families to hold up pictures of their lost relatives so mourners can "know for a moment those you loved."

"It's true that some good may come from this disaster, but the event itself is only tragic and will never make sense," said the Rev. John E. Holt of the Rhode Island Council of Churches. He saluted families for their "quiet courage."