WEST WARWICK, R.I.
Along a busy commercial road here sits a 10-year-old scar that hasn’t healed. Next to a crumbling parking lot, rusty folding chairs sit amid dozens of handmade crosses decorated with beads, stuffed animals and fading photos.
This is where 100 people were killed Feb. 20, 2003, when the tour manager for the rock band Great White set off a flashy pyrotechnics display in an overcrowded nightclub. Its owners had tried to stem noise complaints by lining the walls with what turned out to be flammable packing foam.
In less than a minute, a Thursday evening out for more than 400 music lovers and club employees turned into a nightmare as flames raced through the one-story wooden roadhouse. Some were lucky to escape with nothing more than bloody cuts or singed hair. Others were crushed beneath a throng that surged for the front exit or died from breathing toxic fumes created by the burning foam. Others survived but were horribly burned, some losing their eyesight or their hands or becoming so troubled from the horrors they saw that they attempted suicide.
Ten years later, the imprint of the fire remains in this tiny state of just over 1 million residents. It remains in the survivors and victims’ family members, many of whom feel justice was never served and who have found various ways to move forward with their lives. It remains in the scars — physical and mental — of the people who made it out alive. It remains in the sadness so many here still feel about that night, and the hope that it can be prevented from happening again.
“There’s corruption and stupidity and greed, but there’s also hope and bravery,” said Dave Kane, who lost his 18-year-old son in the fire. “Our children did not die for nothing. There’s a great legacy here, and if people listen to it, they will save other lives.”
Any number of people could have stopped the fire from happening: Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, the owners of The Station nightclub; the town fire marshal who failed to note the flammable foam inside the club; and Daniel Biechele, Great White’s tour manager, who set off the pyrotechnics without a permit.
The only people criminally charged were the Derderians and Biechele, angering many who felt officials including West Warwick Fire Marshal Denis Larocque should have been charged, or Great White members including lead singer Jack Russell. Great White guitarist Ty Longley, formerly of Brookfield, was among those killed.