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Owners of The Station nightclub speak out for the first time since deadly fire

On February 20, 2003, 100 people were killed and more than 200 were injured when The Station nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island, burned to the ground. It was one of the deadliest club fires in American history. Three people were charged, including the club owners Jeff and Michael Derderian, but they say there is more to the story.

CBS News chief investigative and senior national correspondent Jim Axelrod investigates in "The Station Nightclub Fire: Who's Responsible?" 

It all started around 11 p.m. when the rock band Jack Russell's Great White took the stage and the group's tour manager, Daniel Biechele, set off four large fireworks called gerbs. The pyrotechnics ignited the walls on either side of the stage and within seconds flames spread along the foam that lined the walls and ceiling of the club intended to dampen sound. 

The Station Nightclub fire
The pyrotechnics at The Station nightclub ignited the walls on either side of the stage during the Great White performance, and within seconds flames spread along the foam that lined the walls and ceiling of the club intended to dampen sound.  One hundred people were killed; 200 were injured. Dan Davidson

Jeff Derderian, who was helping out at the bar, says he and another employee ran towards the stage with a fire extinguisher. "We tried to get as far as we could. We couldn't make it." When the fire alarm went off the excitement of the crowd turned to panic. Hundreds rushed to exit the building. But since most people headed for the door they came in — the front entrance — it created a stifling bottleneck. And 90 seconds after the fire started, when thick black smoke filled the club, those who were still inside became trapped.  

Nine months after that horrific night, following an extensive investigation, criminal charges were brought against three people: Daniel Biechele, the tour manager of the band who had set off the fireworks, and the Derderian brothers. They were each charged with 200 counts of involuntary manslaughter, and all eventually took plea deals. Biechele pleaded guilty to 100 counts of misdemeanor manslaughter and Michael and Jeff Derderian pleaded no contest to 100 counts of misdemeanor manslaughter. Biechele and Michael Derderian went to prison. 

In the 18 years since the fire the Derderians have never given an in-depth television interview about that night. But now, in an exclusive with Axelrod, Jeff and Michael Derderian say they want to set the record straight and reveal new information. According to Jeff Derderian, "We wanted the full story to come out … and that for people who want to … come to their own conclusion on what happened that night."

Michael and Jeff Derderian
The Station owners Michael and Jeff Derderian. "We wanted the full story to come out … and that for people who want to … come to their own conclusion on what happened that night," says Jeff. CBS News

The brothers address the many accusations against them, including that they cut corners and installed highly flammable foam inside the club. The brothers claim they ordered sound-proofing foam, but didn't know they received flammable packing foam instead. They also speak about the issue of permission — the band says they had permission to use the fireworks inside The Station that night. The brothers insist that isn't true and cite a detailed contract between the band and the club. "These contracts are pretty specific," says Michael Derderian. "So, I would think … that the pyrotechnic provision would be in there… Just like we need to have, you know, 12 M&M's, I mean, you know, and they need to be brown."

Former Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch led the investigation into the fire. "I don't think anybody in anything that they did wanted anybody to die that night or get injured," he said. "But does that mean it's not a crime? The answer is no." To this day Lynch stands by his initial findings and disagrees with the brothers' decision to come forward now. "I think it's pathetic, disgusting and unsettling to think that they're even speaking now."

"48 Hours": Club owners open up about deadly ... 03:25

The brothers also want people to know that they are still haunted by the events of that horrific night. Jeff Derderian says, "You know a day doesn't go by that we don't think about it in some way, shape or form."

Linda Saran
Linda Saran was severely burned in The Station nightclub fire, suffering second- and third-degree burns to 30 percent of her body. AP

But many survivors find it difficult to believe and ultimately to forgive the Derderians. One of those people is Linda Saran. Linda was there that night and managed to narrowly escape the fire, but she was badly burned over 34 percent of her body. She spent weeks in a medically induced coma and endured painful rehab. To this day she's covered in scars that serve as a constant reminder of the fire. She says she has yet to forgive the Derderians. "They have said they were sorry… but never once do they say, we screwed up… If they stood up and said, small business owners, we were inexperienced. We took shortcuts. We screwed up. I would forgive them in a heartbeat."  

On the other hand, Jody King, who lost his brother Tracy doesn't think Jeff and Michael were the only ones at fault. "They blamed three. They should have blamed more … There are other people who should be responsible."

station-king-memorial.jpg
Jody King kneels at his brother Tracy's memorial. Tracy King, a bouncer at the club, was among the 100 people killed in the fire. CBS News

Tracy was a bouncer at the club, and according to Jody, he loved working at The Station and was friends with the Derderians. "[Tracy] trusted the club. He trusted the owners. He trusted in his friends." Jody is glad the brothers are finally talking about what happened.

"We never knew the whole story because the trial never happened, so everything really never came out."  

Hear firsthand accounts of what happened that horrible night as well as what the Derderian brothers have to say in "The Station Nightclub Fire: Who's Responsible?" 

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