CLUB FIRE STILL SMOULDERS FOR SURVIVORS, TOUR BIZ:
February 15, 2004
NASHVILLE (Billboard) – One year after the Rhode Island nightclub fire killed 100 people and injured some 200 others, its impact continues to resound among those closest to the tragedy and throughout the live-music industry.
The Feb. 20, 2003, fire at the Station in West Warwick, R.I., nightclub was started by a pyrotechnics display in the early moments of a performance by the band Great White.
The tragedy — the worst in rock history — has been devastating to all involved: the families and friends of the dead, the survivors who continue to struggle with physical and mental scars, the community, the band and those who could be held legally accountable for the blaze.
Jack Russell, the lead singer of Great White, says he would not wish the past year on his worst enemy.
“I lost three really close friends and 97 other people — if I didn’t know them by name, I knew their faces,” Russell tells Billboard in a rare interview. Among the dead was guitarist Ty Longley. “They were part of our family. My life has been changed forever.”
The concert business has also been significantly changed by the fire. Most people in the touring world believe concerts of all types are safer today than they were one year ago.
“This really was a kick in the ass for a lot of people,” says Jay Nedry, owner of Jaxx, a 550-capacity club in Springfield, Va., where Great White was supposed to play the night after the ill-fated Station gig.
“People in this business are taking a better look at what they have and what could happen,” says Bart Butler, president of concert security firm Rock Solid.
“Every city we go to, the fire marshalls are more involved in things like aisle size and the flow of people than they have been in the past.”
Butler does not believe that fire codes and restrictions are necessarily tougher than one year ago but that laws are perhaps being enforced more diligently.
“Fire marshalls are definitely visiting venues and public assemblies more often than they were,” he says, adding that the use of pyro in general is being scrutinized more than before.
“Certainly, the fire marshalls are a lot less hospitable to a lot of people and tighter on enforcing things, which is something that needed to be done,” Nedry says. “I became very proactive at my club.”
Nedry says he found out that Jaxx only was required to follow codes in existence the year it opened — which was in 1977. “That’s the case in almost every jurisdiction in the U.S.,” he says.
After the fire, Nedry opted to bring his club up to newer standards. “I spent $25,000 and now exceed current codes. Now, if you’re brain dead, intoxicated and on quaaludes, you can still get out of the building.”
Safety improvements did not just occur at the club level.
“There is no question that concerts are safer now than they were before the Rhode Island fire,” says Larry Perkins, assistant GM of the RBC Center in Raleigh, N.C., and liaison with the Fire Protection Assn. for the International Assn. of Assembly Managers.
“Information and education is so important, and what happens following an unfortunate incident like this is people sit up and take notice and try to be cognizant of what it takes to be safe.”
The Rhode Island tragedy also has had a huge impact on the insurance business, says James Chippendale, president of CSI Entertainment Insurance, a brokerage serving the concert industry.
“What we’ve seen over the last year is a supply-and-demand issue,” he says. “There is great demand for all kinds of concert insurance, and fewer companies writing that type of coverage now than ever before. A lot of venues are cutting their coverage because of dramatic price increases. It’s a big problem.”
Countless lives have been affected by the Station fire, not the least of them that of Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch, who was sworn in just 40 days before the fire.
“This has made me a little tougher,” Lynch tells Billboard. “To stand in front of these people, some of them with horrific injuries, as a father, son, brother and a person, has been utterly painful. But it also deepens my resolve.”
As for Great White, the band has continued touring following the fire, donating proceeds after expenses to the Station Family Fund (http://www.stationfamilyfund.org), which has raised more than $70,000 for the families of fire victims.
“That’s a pretty fair chunk of change for a band of our stature,” Russell tells Billboard. “That’s 41 shows in clubs, traveling in vans and staying in cheap motels. That part has been a good experience, and the fans have been great. I have a lot of respect for rock fans who have been coming out and supporting the fund.”
In the Station case, three criminal indictments were issued in December, following a nearly 10-month investigation by a Rhode Island grand jury.
Former Great White tour manager Dan Biechele and club owners Michael and Jeffrey Derderian were each charged with 100 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter with criminal negligence and 100 misdemeanor counts of involuntary manslaughter. Each count of manslaughter carries a maximum penalty of 30 years. All three pleaded innocent.
“I don’t think either Michael or Jeffrey Derderian have committed any criminal act or that they should be held criminally responsible for the tragedy,” says Jeffrey Pine, attorney for the Derderians.
The band members of Great White were not charged.
“Obviously, we’re pleased that none of the band members were indicted, and from the beginning we didn’t think that would be appropriate,” Ed McPherson, attorney for Great White, told Billboard in an earlier interview. “I never saw any criminal culpability for them.”
THE ATTORNEY GENERAL’S TASK
Lynch, a lifelong Rhode Islander, admits he has been under considerable pressure in the case, not only politically and from the media but from “emotional pressure.”
“So many people were hurt so badly,” he says. “This has ripped our community apart and will continue to do so for decades. For me the fire seems like yesterday, but for families of the victims, the fire will always seem like it’s still burning.”
Numerous pre-trial court appearances await, following the most recent on Feb. 10, when Boston attorney Richard Egbert was added to Michael Derderian’s defense team. The next pre-trial date is set for March 12.
Lynch would like to have the defendants before a jury within two years. The three were charged separately, and no motions have been made for or against trying them separately.
The attorney general says he is seeking a “just penalty” if the defendants are found guilty. “And if they are found guilty, in my estimation a just penalty would include significant jail time.”
Russell will not comment on the legal ramifications of the tragedy. But he says, “I feel sorry for anybody that got indicted, because I don’t think anybody wanted this to happen. Nobody wins in this situation. Some people may have come out unharmed, but nobody came out unscathed.”
$1 BILLION IN DAMAGES
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the Derderian brothers and Great White nearly $100,000 for workplace violations Aug. 20.
The Derderians also face a penalty of more than $1 million for failure to carry workers’ compensation insurance. They have appealed both fines.
The grand jury conducted its investigation independently of the numerous tragedy-related lawsuits filed at the state and federal levels, many of which name the band.
Jurisdiction is still being determined in those cases. It is estimated that more than $1 billion in damages may result. It could take at least four years for all the civil suits to be settled. Such suits typically follow criminal cases in the courts.
Great White will continue to tour and raise money for the victims’ families. To mark the anniversary, Russell says he’ll go to church Feb. 20 “for the first time in probably 20 years. I’m going to pray for the families, victims and friends we lost. I hope as time goes by, we all find some peace.”
Ray Waddell courtesy of Billboard