by    Michael  Hammerschlag


AUDIO INTERVIEWS report (real)- 2/24 3:34min             KIRO-AM radio report-2/21 8:30am Seattle- 4 min (all realplayer)               KIRO TALK SHOW - 2/21 12 min                   Printable              NEW PICS 5-9-6 at bottom

InCorrected MAP of Club2     Globe Map     ProJo Map   Aerial View Ruins     My NFPA testimony        Biechele gets four years 100 counts manslaughter 5-11-6

W. Warwick, RI: 9:30am
updated Mar 14+Dec        
I've just returned from 3 hours at the disaster scene, where now 99 (100 May 4th) people perished and 187 were taken to the hospital-36 admitted at last count. One more body was found Feb 23rd and the count was dropped by one on the 27th; but in a testament to full-court press medical care, only 3 of the desperately burned patients have succumbed (another Mar 2 + 6th), though some have 80-90% burns. 14 more people are still critical, with inhalation burns of the lungs or high percentage burns. After the first 15 fatalities, victims have had to be identified by dental records; state policemen were sent out to collect closed dentists' records. 432 people (Oct 5 PJ) were in the crowded low-ceilinged club, way above the capacity of 250 (with the pool tables and machines inside- manager Beese says it was 317), when the headliner band started their first song and ignited gerbs- firework fountains that they had used in many previous performances. "If I knew they were going to do that, I would have been afraid," said Jerry, sitting shellshocked in the Duncan Donuts 150 yards from the incinerated club.       List of Victims{ProJo}Hospitalized      Donations        Photos of Victims {Ch6}    FULL Pro-Jo Coverage

       From extensive interviews with 11 people inside at the time of the fire, including some not interviewed by anyone else, we've got a good sense of what the material was that ignited so horribly fast. The wall behind the band, hit by a raft of sparkler sparks, was covered by foam rubber sheets pressed into the shape of repeating egg cartons (leading some witnesses to think it was cardboard)- a standard acoustical dampening material, but this stuff was spectacularly flammable. {PJ} It was "the lowest grade, the cheapest stuff; 2½" thick packing foam costing $575 for 25 sheets of 3'x7' size installed in June 2000.³ Flame retardant foam would have cost double, or $6 per fatality. Stage manager Paul Vanner says owner Jeff Derderian was concerned about noise complaints, and the town was insisting on it for relicensing. A neighbor who had complained about the noise, Barry H. Warner, worked for American Foam and suggested and ordered it.
-- Sunrise over right side remains 6:45am 2/21 Copyright 2003 Michael Hammerschlag

Other bands say some foam has been there for up to decade, and had dried into a crumbly brown texture. The sparks coming out at a 45° angle from 2" x 9" tubes slapped into the foam. "You could see it glowing... I knew we were in bad shape," said Vanner. "I think I'm in trouble," said GW tour manager Dan Biechele, who set up the fireworks, according to sometime bouncer Mario Giamei, as the fire spreads (ProJo reports). As one can see in the unbelievable video, the fire raced up the walls in 2 smooth sheets that were so even that it looked like an effect to the crowd, leading to 40 seconds of immobility, time they would never get back. It quickly passed to the ceiling, which was made of cheap drop foam panels, painted black, with black lights hanging below it to illuminate the glowing speckles of material amid the black. "When it reached the ceiling, I knew something was wrong," said a 30ish man waiting in the blockaded zone for his ride (about 5 insiders echoed his words). This ceiling also proved insanely combustible. Only 20-30 seconds after the first flames, the whole rear wall seemed to explode in a sheet of flame, and the remaining band member who was trying to fight the fire, barely made it off the stage. The guitarist, Ty Longley, is among the fatalities, another was burned.

           "It was so instantaneous, you have no idea.. within seconds, it was walls, ceiling," said a woman wrapped in a bedcover outside in the cold dawn. From interviews with people in the middle of the crowd, once they had been pushed out the door by the surging crowd (60 seconds), the dark poisonous smoke dropped to chest level within a few seconds and fire started coming out most of the doors and windows. For the remaining crowd, life had became a desperate struggle. If they survived, they would have had to crouch down below the acrid lethal smoke which "had a horrible smell to it- it smelled like rubber", and keep moving smoothly towards the front door or one of the 2 other obvious exits, which was almost impossible because of the surging crowd: "I didn't feel like I had much control over where I was going. I wasn't going to go towards the fire!" said Jerry, about the door right by the stage that a few (20 -Dec7 PJ) patrons and band members fled through, though it had speakers partially blocking it. A still photo seems to show that exit sign out, though that may be an illusion from the flash.

Another exit door was on the left end of the horseshoe bar ("invisible, because it was colored the same as the wall," says car salesman Bill, also a factor in the 1977 Ky fire- only 12 exited through this), another in the back through a maze of hallways- both little unused because their exit signs were not really visible from the floor, and the herd movement towards the front door carried everyone along. Even a woman within 5 steps of the rear bar lounge door "got pummeled" and knocked down getting out. Others smashed windows (greenhouse) to the right of the front door, which were also broken by those on the outside, and clambered through the slashing glass into the cool sustenance of the outside, bloody but alive. Todd King of Framingham says that stretch of windows were mostly blocked by pool tables, vending machine, table, and air hockey table; which were supposed to have been removed to increase the occupancy for concerts.

The front entrance narrowed and split into 2 directions inside and the outside railing and ramp stopped straight movement out the door at 5 ft.. Along with the band bus and cars parked up against the building, all these factors impeded egress from the deathtrap and access for the firefighters. The band's lead singer Jack Russell claims he got permission for the fireworks, but The Station owners and 4 previous band venues deny the band asked, and claim complete surprise. One club, the Stone Pony, in New Jersey doused their fireworks when they started. But 3 other bands have claimed they used fireworks too at The Station club as many as 20 times, 2 with videos. {BH}W. Warwick fireman had been stationed in the club 7 times in 2000-2001 for sanctioned fireworks during concerts. Fire marshals have fanned out to inspect all small clubs in the state and have closed 8, including a club 4 miles fm The Station, Mardi Gras, which had covered most of its interior in foam. Legal suits have been flying, with plantiffs including Anheuser Busch and massive Clear Channel Communications (owns 1200 radio stations)- this case will be litigated for years.
Left side remains   copyright 2003MH
 One problem was no audible instructions from club personnel to direct people to the other 3 open exits in the 60 seconds before panic set in. "A security guard brushed by me.. he ran by me.. all he said was 'excuse me', he didn't say 'Everyone out', nothing, nothing," said Scott bitterly, a 80's band fan from Portsmouth (Newport). In the video, a person, perhaps Budweiser rep Michael Cordier (who died), waves and points repeatedly towards the main exit. Of course, for someone working, after the brilliance of the pyrotechnics, it would have taken a minute to notice what was happening, and that was the entire time there was to escape- 67 seconds from when Butler's camera records the ignition to when he escapes the building. "There was no time. Half the staff died because they were pushing people out the door," said a woman sadly late Sunday (23rd) night in the Cowesett Inn across the street from the remnants of the bar. 4 members of the staff perished in the hellish inferno, including 2 bouncers: Tracy King, and Steve Mancini (who was also in the opening band-Fathead), and his wife Andrea- the ticket taker.
Todd King and wife  
Todd King (no relation) claims another bouncer at the front door, not understanding what was happening, pushed him and his wife back into the club. "He shoved my wife.. behind me; I grabbed her belt, pulled her around in front of me, [then] the bouncer shoved me...Then I just pushed everybody through." Ironically, after the Chicago trampling, they may have been more concerned with controlling panicked running. "The area between the ticket booth and that wall.. was so small.. 2 people couldn't walk side by side," explained Todd in a 2 hour interview. The 4x4 ft white ticket booth greeted people once they passed through the Y right turn entrance and presented another fatal constriction for fleeing patrons. 25 bodies were found inside that bottleneck. "As we reached the ramp, chairs came flying through the windows" (of the bar lounge).
                                                                                                                                       John Gibbs-
John Gibbs claims he and his friend, Kevin Dunn, were prevented from exiting out the stage door and pushed towards the front of the club by club workers, who outrageously claimed that exit "was only for the band." His friend died. Another stage escapee, Bruce Cormier, shoved his way past the bouncer with his son and daughter; 15 seconds later he said the door slammed shut, and no one else came out. Sited 3 times by inspectors, that door opened the wrong way {PJ}- into the club- and panic bar was sometimes broken. 2-3 dozen more people should have been able to make it through this door, from the fatal zone near the stage, but that would have required moving towards the fire, instinctively difficult.

{PJ}As people piled up inside the front door, off-duty bouncer Mario Giamei, and opener Fathead drummer Al Prudhomme, who had fled through the stage door, yanked terminally tangled people clear of the pile. 8 West Warwick police, who'd been about to make a routine sweep throught the club, also dove into the desperate effort to free people from the pile. Within 50 seconds, to the everlasting horror of witnesses, smoke and flames filled that door. "He was one of the ones who tried", said the manager of the Greek sandwich joint across the street, about a haunted troubled-looking cop who stopped there March 4th. Kevin Meese, the club manager, says he and Joe crawled back into the smoke filled bar area with a flashlight, calling for people {PJ} Incredible tales of courage and sacrifice occurred as people threw strangers out of the inferno, or went back inside looking for friends (like Matt Darby, who pulled out 12 people), never to emerge. "I'll never listen to another Great White song," said Dawn in the Cowessett Inn, who'd played in 2 bands at The Station over 12 years. In the haunting video, lovely waitress Dina DeMaio cheesily mugs for the camera of her boss- she was celebrating her 30th birthday, there wouldn't be any more. As of Sunday night almost all the remnant structures had been torn down, it was just rubble, except for a piece of the left wing and incredibly, the drummer alcove, where the fire started. Sunday a caravan of buses took relatives to a private viewing of the ruins, but as if nature was piling on... for the last 2 days it poured rain in RI.
                 left side left wall-MH 
(stills from video)                                                                               
This bar was a ramshackle dry wood building dating from WW2 with extensions; some parts I think covered by tar paper, creosote?, and large old shingles, which is why it went up like a torch. I drove through an intense plume of smoke returning from a video store at 12:10am (still 3 miles away- it started an hour earlier at 11:05pm) and was hit by a wave of blind panic, actually yanking up the door handle to throw myself out of the 45mph vehicle. "I have to get out!" rang in my head. My engine was on fire.... No ... this was.. wood smoke. What was going on here?

Incredible, setting off fireworks next to flammable foam without even a fire extinguisher nearby- this was the first error. The walls ignited enormously- almost like it’d been covered by flammable liquid. The local CBS TV station WPRI had cameraman Brian Butler next to stage where you can see walls ablaze and people had no idea there was a problem- he was able to back all the way out of place before people started leaving, calmly but worried- some walking ghosts. Tragic. I walked into that place, The Station, once maybe 6-9 months before on a Sunday afternoon- it was a typical cramped club with a warm friendly atmosphere, but didn't stay- it's a suburb-rural place (somebody was yelling "Yeah, that's Great" as the fire flashed up the walls, thinking it was part of act). I looked around it critically, with 150W spootlights right up against the low raw wood ceiling and thought it was such a horrible fire trap that I mentioned that to a patron. The club, however, did just pass a fire inspection a month ago: sprinklers were not mandated for a club that size. The flammable foam was never noticed or listed in any of the 3 inspections since it was installed, though the rules mandate verifying flame resistance. "It was all dry dry wood," said Angel, who drove to work by the club 5 minutes before the fire and had been there often. "The lights were too close to the ceiling... especially where the band played."         drummer's alcove where fire started-

That kind of foam- unless it's heavily fireproofed, I believe emits deadly cyanide gas
(3am Feb 21) when burned (a longtime problem with airline cushions). Yes. OSHA burn tests of the same foam found in the basement of the club produced toulene diisocyanate, acetone, acrylonitrile, - all poisonous or corrosive (to flesh) solvents. There’s a foot of black smoke at the ceiling within 1 minute of ignition, which probably became fatal within another 30 seconds. Inevitably, as the place filled with blinding poisonous smoke, the crowd panicked, rushed the exits, and piled up prone by the door and broken windows, where other guests smeared with blood tried to yank them through.  The horror. "As they opened the door, the smoke billowed, and within 5 seconds, the lights went out," a woman said, which started the stampede. The immediate power failure and roiling smoke plunged the club into blackness. One thing that might have saved some people was if someone had instantly commandeered a car and crashed through the 20 ft stretch of windows near the door. This was impossible because the band's luxury tour bus was parked right up along the front, "the driver's side was all burnt at the top," said Bill. Scott saw it too, but "they got that out of there before it all went up."                                                                                                          center smokey section 2003 MH

Slow motion of the video reveals an anemic spastic stream of water from hoses presumably pinched under car tires as firemendesperately tried to water the Danté-esque pile of people in the front door, which extended 20 feet back in a mass. They suceeded; tragically one at the bottom drowned, according to a WW cop. Miraculously, Mike Vargas, stuck at the bottom for 90 minutes and shielded by thousands of pounds of people on top of him, survived almost unhurt. That stretch of windows was blocked by pool tables, chairs, vending machine, air hockey and a merchandising table; which people had to clamber over into the smoke and heat to make it through the windows. If there’s a fate worse than death, it’s serious burns. Heroic fireman entered the inferno before the building was safe and pulled 100 people out of there, many just before the roof collapsed. "They were there within a minute and a half. I called 911 and said 'People are dead.. get over here'.. which got their attention," said Todd. He and his wife Teresa, whom he credits for noticing the fire first ("She said, 'We've gotta go'... I thought she was mad at me."), spent the next 2 hours ferrying the grievously injured into the Cowesett Inn and parking lot and tended them.                                                                                                                                                                        
The TV station had sent cameraman there in response to Chicago club disaster to show a club that was up to code and was safe! And it was owned by another person from the same station, Jeffrey Derderian, who was also there on the story. Saturday night he gave a short sobbing press conference about his experiences that night, basically thanking people and denying giving permission for the fireworks (many other bands had used fireworks there), but the lust for justice has begun- the attorney general and governor have been promising criminal charges... against someone. Feb 23, they searched his brother Michael's (the main owner of the club) house, and a grand jury was convened Wednesday, with the band members Great White and others testifying.
Jeffrey is widely praised by his employees, colleagues, and patrons as a "really nice guy." He had been trying to sell the club, maybe the very next day. The brothers have hired former Republican AG Jeffrey Pine to defend them, the former boss of the current Democratic AG Patrick Lynch, who has seemed to back off somewhat. In another vicious irony, Derderian had produced TV reports for WHDH-TV7 in Boston on what do when a fire filled a room with smoke and another on mattress fires, where they lit fires in a room and crouched below smoke. He said about the polyurethane foam in the mattresses, "fire safety experts call this stuff solid gasoline", that  makes deadly fires because of the "speed and intense smoke".

His stage manager, Paul Vanner, says he told the brothers 3-4 months ago that "I can't guarantee safety," if they continue to use fireworks, and that had been none used till Great White blackened their club. Both the band and club stage managers should have ensured a fire extinguisher was by the stage for the fireworks*: there was 15-25 seconds with which to stop the fire and any fatalitites. It turns out the Derderians had no required worker's compensation in effect for their decimated employees and were paying several of the 13 member staff under the table. PJ reports Michael taking the full cash register drawer from the bartender Julie outside the club and running behind the burning building. March 13 the Nat. Fire Protection Association took testimony from witnesses in Boston- they recommend dropping the capacity for manditory sprinklers. Todd says that by the time he'd returned home at 2 am that terrible night, the club website: had been taken down, he thinks to hide pictures of the bands (w pyrotechnics?). "If that place had 100 people in it, it was full," said a waiter at the Cowesett Inn. "I always hated that place," said Bill, a car dealer, in the nearby Duncan Donuts, whose mother and brother almost attended that night. "It was so cramped.. You always had a feeling something was going to happen there."
                                                                                                Copyright ©2003 Michael Hammerschlag (inc. all photos but 4 fm TV)
*Dec 9,04: The indictments missed the person with the greatest responsibility for keeping the place safe: the club stage manager; and the moron who turned people away from the stage door. "That's what the grand jury returned," said AG Lynch to a query. "I can only do what they say." May 11,06 Biechele may have reckless in using too big fireworks for that low ceilinged club, but it was a nightmare firetrap waiting for the slightest spark and mostly the responsibility of the owners and managers. 4 years seemed fair, considering his deep sorrow and honor in not fighting it, but in many states he would have recieved less or nothing for misdemeanor manslaughter. No fire or building inspectors were ever fired or punished, although West Warwick's Denis Larocque saw the foam many times in inspections. And for Derderian to use that explosively flamable foam after doing a TV report on it was monstrously negligent.

² Map in boston globe inaccurate- but I thought stage exit had foyer with another door 10 ft to the right (from video), but I've been told and believe this is incorrect and door opened straight to outside; Many people say there was a partial wall with poles between horseshoe bar and main floor, which may have existed in an earlier configuration. Club was under constant alteration- it looked very different 5-6 months earlier when I saw it. Map in 2/22 ProJo completely wrong, as is evident from the next page aerial photo, which also shows open door at end of left finger hallway. Unless this door opened only from the outside, club would have had 5 exits. 3/1 Projo map shows door at front left corner of building, which I guess exists, because they counted 46 people who went through it (Dec 7), but 2-3 months ago they said door couldn't be opened.

³ Many years ago I bought a sheet of 3" foam rubber for a camping sleeping pad from that company: American Foam Corp in Johnston., RI. Once when camping, I used a little laundromat detergent box as a candle holder (not advised) and woke to the nylon tent floor and edge of the sleeping bag on fire. It never reached the foam, luckily. When I renovated an entire attic 13 years ago, installing walls, ceiling, carpet, electricity; I was able to buy flame-retardant 4x8' sheets of 5/8" white polyurethane foam paneling for the ceiling for only $2.20 each. I insisted on seeing the spec sheet.

NOTE: This started as a blog, but was converted into an article. The organization is strange, some things are repeated, there are errors since I don't have a spell check on html editor, and it's constantly being updated; but I mean it to be a definitive mid-length article on this horrible event, with my reporting and news from many sources integrated into a coherent tale. Presumably, people have read articles on the big issues, like the foam purchase. I casually knew 4 victims of this Stephan King nightmare. I would like to have been there- I would like to have saved those people, but I couldn't. I can do this. In June '03, I was offered a large piece of change for an article on this, but 6 months later it wouldn't have been opening wounds, but ripping up scars. And in truth, although totally explainable, this was so fast it was like the underworld reaching up from the ground to snatch those people below- there were forces here I didn't want to get any closer to than I had- and misery and pain beyond comprehension. With great reluctance, I turned it down. Some errors in the club map were not removed to expose the Rashomon Effect on multiple traumatic testimonies.                                                                                                                              West Warwick Police Chief

Michael Hammerschlag’s commentaries + articles have appeared in Seattle Times, Providence Journal, Honolulu Advertiser, Columbia Journalism Review, Media Channel, and Capital Times.  He reported from Russia from 1991-1994, wrote for Moscow News, Tribune, Guardian, Times, and We/Mui;has produced TV reports and documentaries, and did radio reports and 15 hours of talk shows. He broke the first big story about media mistakes in the 2000 election, covered the 2004 election, and the Cheney shooting. His web page is , mail:

 1977 Southgate, Ky (Cincinnati) Beverly Hills Supper Club fire- previous worst fire with 165 fatalities- Cincinnati Post

Account of Robert Riffe, who was stuck in the door pileup - Prov Journal

BROADCAST NEWS:   That video tape will take it's place as one of the 3 most incredible news videos recorded; along with the images of Lenny Scutnick pulling a woman out of the frozen Potomac as she sank for the last time after the Florida Air crash, and David Crocket's prescient film of Mt. St. Helens exploding (he got up at 5am on a Sunday, drove out to the mountain, and was on the west flank as it exploded in March 1980- I watched it for hours in connection with an article). In fine Seattle fashion, he was punished for losing the KOMO-TV car rather than getting the highest journalistic awards. I've spent much time examining that fire footage, trying to identify the doomed patrons in their last moments. In a multifarious conflict of interest, Channel 12 both employed the cameraman and owner who helped pull victims out of the inferno, the owner who may face endless charges for failings; had sent a new reporter to brag about his own bar (which is understandable if you understand TV and difficulty of shooting liabilty prone interiors); and had to try report on the events and controversies fairly. All in all, they've done pretty well, but are still being pulled in 5 directions at once. Suits have begun to fly- this disaster will be litigated for years.

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