At 11:08pm on Thursday, February 20, 2003, sparks from the pyrotechnics used by the '80s rock band Great White ignited foam soundproofing insulation on the walls of the Station Nightclub at 211 Cowesett Avenue in West Warwick. Of the approximately 460 patrons, employees, and band members inside at the time, 100 died and about 200 sustained injuries ranging from minor cuts and scrapes to severe burns.
The events inside the nightclub as the foam caught fire, and outside as patrons struggled to escape, were captured on videotape by Brian Butler of WPRI Channel 12. Many of those images were played over and over locally and broadcast all over the world.
Even as West Warwick, the state, and the country reacted in shock and horror at the deadliest fire-related disaster in Rhode Island's history, fingers began to be pointed. The list of those deemed responsible for the deaths ranged from nightclub owners Michael and Jeff Derderian, Great White and their manager Dan Biechele, fire marshal Denis P. Larocque, to the American Foam Corporation and even to concert sponsors Anheuser Busch and radio station WHJY. Of course, no one set out to kill 100 people that night, but through a combination of carelessness, negligence, miscommunication, and ignorance, it happened.
Great White's manager Biechele pled guilty to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter, and was sentenced in 2006 to fifteen years (eleven suspended) plus three years probation. He was released on parole in 2008. The Station's owners, Michael and Jeff Derderian, pled "no contest" at their trial. Michael Derderian received the same sentence as Biechele, while Jeff Derderian got no jail time, but a ten-year suspended sentence, three years probation, and community service.
Today, the grief may not be as raw and visible as it once was, but it's still there, and the anger continues to simmer.
Were you there that night? Do you know someone who was? Please tell us your story. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For me, who fortunately knew none of the souls lost that night, it was about one girl. I did not even know her, yet to this day I still feel such sorrow. She was the little waitress you see smiling in the opening of the film. Her name was Dina DiMaio. She symbolizes the entire tragedy to me. The very essence of life, snuffed out uselessly. Someone who should now be enjoying her young life somewhere having fun or just living maybe…just living. Now she is gone, and the ones responsible are still skating. The Fire Marshal and town officials skated, as did the TV station. They who, ironically, were filming the event as a special on fire safety. That is where the film came from. Notice that guy got out alive, too. If you saw it all, you would see him running from exit to exit, and not dropping his camera or missing an inch of film. He got shoved back many times by the firemen and ended up lying on the ground under the TV station van and filming still.
At least they had the moral decency to finally cut out the footage of the people stacked and burning like cordwood at the entrance. God that was awful, the screaming! I can still see one woman's really long, beautiful, honey, shiny, wavy hair hanging forward over her face and down the stacked people to the ground. She could not even raise her head from her face-down position midway in the pile. She, like all the others, was trapped by the bodies of those behind her lying on her legs. Most of those who died did so in the narrow maze of the entrance which was designed to make sure no one slipped by the doorman. They say one person at the bottom of the pile did not burn. How horrible for that person to lay there waiting to burn, hearing the screams of all those above and behind them, feeling the heat.
There are some other points here which should be addressed by the entertainment industry each time they "entertain," I think. The stage door was blocked and no one was allowed out. That was right next to the stage, and hardly anyone would have died if that were not blocked by the bouncer (who turned people away). Another deadly thing was the chained exit door near the bar (so no one snuck in free). Is it worth it, I wonder, to keep out a few people who did not pay? Maybe they should consider using some of the profits to hire extra security? Chaining the exit doors is pretty common; if you see it, point it out as against federal law. But mostly it was the lethal smoke from the sound insulation. That is what caused it all. Not even the pyrotechnics would have caused this if not for the cheesy foam sound insulation. That is what you need to look closely at when booking a club or venue. That toxic smoke is what killed almost everyone inside. Look at YouTube and see the simulation. It is frightening how fast that smoke blanketed the air, smothering the oxygen, and killing people like poison gas.
You know that still, many years later, the wrong people got punished, and the culprits prosper. More than people died that night. The music also died, and a band died: Great White. They have no heart left as they play. Right after the memorials went up, the families and some people were still so angry, that in their inconsolable madness, grief-stricken, they kept ripping down the cross for the guitarist who died. Mercifully for his young wife and child and family, who grieved as mightily as anyone, they finally left it alone. Rhode Island is a small enough state that everyone who lives here knows someone who died in the fire or who lost someone that night. So, every year we all hope to heal, but it goes on. Litigation, denial, escape from responsibility, the plea from Dan Biechele to be released. The continued miasma dragging us all through it again and again. The memorial, the crosses, the people crying as you ride by. There is no avoiding the street, as Cowessett Avenue is a cut through from one major artery to the next. Almost everyone uses it, and half the families locally have at least one meal a year at the Cowessett Inn, right across the street. The sadness is palpable, the little teddy bears, the figurines, the dolls, the photos, candles, floral arrangements, and mementos…all there. The folding chair, left by someone at one of the crosses, is probably the saddest. Going by there in the really bad weather, is so sad it's hardly bearable, as the greyness adds to the "aura" of the place. But even when all are snug inside, there will inevitably be someone standing there, crying, or just reflecting.
One of the most touching things I ever saw was there. I was going by on a nice sunny day, on my way to the Mall (I avoid 95 as much as I can). The CD player was blasting, the windows were open and I was singing away, one of those moments. Then, there I was passing by the "Site." Usually you have to slow down as traffic just does, as if in respect, so you have to go slow like it or not. Then, as you go by, you have to look, because you just have to. This time, I saw a really old woman, trying to get up off her knees. Evidently she had been praying in front of one of the crosses. Her struggle was heartbreaking, that someone that frail was left behind by someone who had to have been much younger than she. The traffic had stopped…why? Because some man had just stopped right in the street to get out and help this woman up. Then he got back in his car with no apology to the impatiently waiting line (someone was actually honking and yelling behind me) and drove off. I was overjoyed again, and wanted to say here, that man's "spirit," THAT is my Rhode Island. With all its faults, that is why I live here. It is why I drove almost 4,000 miles to get home. It is why I am quick to defend our tiny state, because it has the biggest heart.