In February of 2003, one of the worst nightclub disasters ever in the United States took place in the town of West Warwick, Rhode Island. The 80’s hair band, Great White, was playing a late show in a small club known as The Station. The poor choices of several people over the years came to a head as the pyrotechnics the band used in their show ignited soundproofing inside the club and quickly overwhelmed the crowd that was there to see the band. 100 people lost their lives that night.
As I began the book by John Barylick about the disaster, I didn’t know immediately what prompted him to write the book. It wasn’t until I was more than halfway through that I learned he was one of the lawyers who initiated lawsuits for a group of survivors and family members. Does it color his view? Maybe. For the most part, though, what he gives readers is heavy on facts.
Barylick goes into great detail on why the disaster happened. The Station nightclub originally started as a local small restaurant and transformed over the years through different owners. As modifications were made, it’s clear that there was no further thorough building inspection. Indeed, the one town official who could possibly have raised red flags early on, simply signed off on a larger capacity for the new owners once they had come to terms with a neighbor who complained often about the noise from the club.
That neighbor was also a salesman for American Foam and sold sound-suppressing foam to the club owners, Michael and Jeff Derderian, who figured he couldn’t complain about the noise if the foam didn’t work. No one ever thought to check if the foam was flame-retardant. Barylick goes into great detail explaining how the tests done on this type of foam, showing how it didn’t truly demonstrate its flammability. Indeed, the foam industry sold foam like this and a type used by a previous owner as being perfect for buildings and sound insulation based on faulty testing, when it was something like putting “solid gasoline” on the walls. They stopped doing that in the 1970s, but there was no real follow-through on making sure consumers knew the flammability issues with the foam.
With two types of highly-flammable foam on the walls of the club, it was bad enough. The Derderians overcrowded the club as well. There were 462 people inside that night as people were piled in one on top of the other. The maximum occupancy was 402, and that was taking the entire building as being “standing room”, not accounting for kitchen space, back bar space, and other spaces that were generally off-limits to the public. The design of the building was a problem as well, with plastic atrium windows that would not break, exits that had been blocked off, and other issues that trapped people in an inferno that fully consumed the building in about 90 seconds.
I liked how Barylick was heavy on facts, breaking everything down so lay readers can understand what went on. The only miracle here seems to be that the fire didn’t happen sooner. However, the one thing he did that detracted from the overall story is his apparent attitude towards the band, their music, and their typical audience members. He makes a number of comments about Great White’s music (and, indeed, the music of many of the bands who played at The Station over the years). That was bad enough, but then he talks about the bodies being identified, he comments on how the audience at the club helped themselves in that manner with all of the tattoos they had on them, even the women. Hey, I’ve had tattoos since the early 1990s. He may want to look down his nose at me too.
Who is to blame can’t easily be answered and he spells out why. It’s obvious to see he puts a lot of blame on the brothers who owned the club, the local fire marshal who overlooked a lot of problems with the club when inspecting it, the band, and the band’s manager who was the one who touched off the pyrotechnics that started the conflagration.
Dan Biechele was the band’s tour manager. On his tour book with the specifics for each show, investigators found that Great White did not do pyrotechnics with their show if the venue didn’t allow it. The question became if they had permission. The Derderians immediately tried to deny not only that the band had permission to use the pyrotechnics, but also that they ever allowed them to be set off in the club. There were plenty of videos and eyewitness testimony to shoot this down, though. In fact, they had scheduled a promotional video shoot later in the week with pyrotechnics.
Indeed, there seems to be plenty of blame directed at the Derderians and little remorse on their part except for how it affected them. The only person involved who truly seemed remorseful was Dan Biechele. Barylick seems to direct a lot of blame at the lead singer of Great White as well, Jack Russell. That was something I didn’t understand. Yes, he was the one who made all of the decisions about the show in general. Should he have been more diligent about making sure the proper permits had been secured for pyrotechnics? It’s easy to say that in hindsight. I think the author just doesn’t like Great White or their music and let this color his view of them. They did lose a band member in the inferno, who went to help a friend instead of exiting the building with the rest of the band.
We often take for granted that people are doing the right thing. Indeed, this is the premise for many regulations people want to walk back; industry will “do the right thing.” This book demonstrates that’s not the case, from the manufacturers of the foam to the club owners, everyone shirked their duty to their fellow man in favor of the almighty dollar.
Despite my reservations about the author, I do highly recommend the book. It gives the reader a lot of facts and a complete understanding of just why this tragedy happened. I felt angry that very little was done criminally, especially to the club owners. Only one got any jail time, and his sentence was the same as Dan Biechele’s, someone who actually did express remorse and cooperate with authorities. Indeed, many of the victims and/or their families wrote in support of his parole, calling him a “scapegoat.” I can’t imagine living with something like this on your conscience.
As for the civil lawsuits, Barylick explains why they sued who they did. I don’t know that I agree with him – there was just a perfect storm of circumstances that led to this. It was more a case of trying to get something for the victims since the club owners didn’t carry much insurance ($1 million, the same as the band) and had few other assets to seize. How much of the various settlements actually went to the victims as opposed to the lawyers is never discussed, just a complicated formula to distribute the funds.
Reading this made me feel we don’t have enough regulations and enough inspectors out there. Just expecting people to “do the right thing” out of the “goodness of their heart” doesn’t work. That 100 people died that night proves it. You’ll have to pick up the book to understand just how bad the Derderians were in terms of how they ran the club. It’s definitely worth it.
Below is a YouTube link to the footage of the fire taken by a news-station cameraman. It’s upsetting to watch, so I caution people before viewing it.
Categories: Book Reviews