Nightclub Fire Hearing Gets Emotional

Jay McLaughlin reads a statement during court proceedings for Michael and Jeffrey Derderian in Kent County Superior Court in Warwick, R.I. on Friday, Sept. 29, 2006. McLaughlin is the brother-in-law of Michael Hoogasian who died in The Station nightclub fire. Behind him are his wife Paula, sister of the deceased, and Claire Hoogasian, mother of the deceased.(AP Photo/Bob Breidenbach, Pool)
AP Photo
One owner of a nightclub where 100 people died in a fire sparked by a band's pyrotechnics received four years in prison Friday, and the other was sentenced to probation as the victims' relatives vented their anger over what they considered to be overly lenient sentences.

Michael Derderian, 45, who received the prison time, and his brother, Jeffrey, 39, pleaded no contest to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the 2003 fire, which quickly engulfed The Station nightclub because they had installed highly flammable foam to ease neighbors' noise concerns.

"Lady Justice in Rhode Island is blind, but she's also deaf," said Jay McLaughlin — a relative of Sandy and Michael Hoogasian, two of those who died — before he walked back to his seat to applause from victim' families.

The testimony, which often deviated from the judge's instructions to cover only the fire's effect on their lives and not the plea or legal issues, lasted for several hours before Jeffrey and Michael Derderian were sentenced.

Judge Francis Darigan, wanting to avoid a long and heart-wrenching trial, said as the hearing began that he would not reconsider the deals.

Still, many family members tried to change the judge's mind.

"I know you can do better, and I'm asking you to," said Susan Howorth-Pritchard, whose brother, Carlton Howorth, III, died in the fire. "It's the right thing to do."

After the relatives had testified for about two hours, Jeffrey Derderian was slumped in his seat, choking back tears. Earlier, his lawyer took off her glasses, dabbed at her eyes and sobbed. Michael began to cry when Derderian family friend Jody King, whose brother, Tracey, was a club bouncer and died in the fire, spoke of his brother.

The fast-moving fire — one of the deadliest in U.S. history — began when pyrotechnics set off by the band Great White ignited foam that the Derderian brothers had put up for soundproofing. One hundred people were killed, including many who were trapped and died at the doorways, overcome by fumes and smoke. More than 200 people were injured.

At the start of Friday's hearing, lights were dimmed and a voice recited the names of the 100 people killed, as video screens displayed photographs, each with a name, age and hometown.

Then began the testimony by their relatives, many of whom had wanted far stiffer punishments as well as a trial, where they could find out more about how and why their loved ones died.

Claire Bruyere said her daughter Bonnie Hamelin was now in a place where "there is no corruption or negligence."

"She was let down by the system, state and even me. I can't reassure her that someone was held responsible for her death," Bruyere said. She was applauded as she finished her statement.

The flames and toxic fumes that broke out on Feb. 20, 2003, during the concert quickly consumed the one-story wooden building in West Warwick, 13 miles south of Providence, at The Station club. Panicked concertgoers were left in a logjam at the front exit.

The fire, the fourth-deadliest nightclub blaze in U.S. history, prompted an overhaul of Rhode Island's fire codes, a tide of lawsuits and criminal charges against the Derderians and former Daniel Biechele, former tour manager for the 1980s heavy metal band.

Biechele was sentenced in May to four years in prison after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter for igniting the stage explosives.

Criminal charges against all three defendants were resolved without any of the men going to trial.

Michael Derderian received the harsher sentence because he purchased the foam, defense attorney Kathleen Hagerty said. She has said the brothers were not warned the material was dangerous or violated the fire code.

The foam was used after neighbors complained about the club's loud music.

A federal civil lawsuit filed by nearly 300 people who were injured or lost loved ones is still pending.