Plenty of club fire blame to go around

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 4, 2003

Suffolk News-Herald

In my opinion, the band Great White, and the Derderian brothers, owners of the night club that caught on fire Feb. 20 in West Warwick, R.I., are not feeling much compassion for the pain, suffering, and deaths of victims and their families.

Instead, they are blaming each other for the disaster. In my opinion, both parties are equally responsible for the 97 lives lost and more than 60 injured at the concert. Jeffrey Pine, a lawyer for Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, said that his clients never gave the heavy metal band permission to set off a pyrotechnic display during the concert. Band members are saying that the club owners are lying and did give them the go ahead to use them.

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About two years ago, owners had placed highly flammable soundproofing foam on the walls after neighbors had complained of the noise when activities were being held there. The club’s stage manager and sound engineer, Paul Vanner, said the foam had been there since 2000. The proper but more expensive material that they should have used would have been packaging foam. Were they thinking that it’s more important to save money than to save lives?

The club owners did not have an automatic sprinkler system and it is in question if the victim count would have been lower if they did. Inspectors also documented problems from improperly installed fire extinguishers and burned-out light bulbs.

Legal experts and fire investigators say the club’s owners, along with band members, could be indicted on state charges of involuntary manslaughter or second-degree murder.

It was more disturbing to learn that the Derderians were more concerned about securing a liquor license just before the fire because they were in the process of trying to sell the club. Could that be because they knew of the danger that was there and were trying to find a means of escape before something like this incident happened?

Great White should have checked out the club thoroughly to make a sound judgment if it would be safe to use the pyrotechnic display. If they had, they may have noticed the flammable foam on the walls. They should have known how high and how wide the sparks from this display could reach if they were familiar with it and in return, made a safe decision. Evidently they didn’t because if they did, this fire would have never happened.

Now band members want the authorities to grant them immunity from prosecution if they testify in court. Seems like they are more concerned about saving their own butts rather than mourning the death of one of their members who died in that fire.

I feel that both band and club owners should face the music. This should be a wake up call to owners of other public places such as this one, to operate them as safely as possible and up to inspection standards.

This may be time consuming, but I suggest that a period of time should be used before every event to inform those patronizing a club or entertainment center about fire exits and safety equipment that can be used in the event of a disaster. I suggest this because according to news reports about the fire, more people would have been saved if everyone had not been piled up at one the one exit that they entered. Apparently, there was another one but the people in that club were unaware of it.

Hopefully those 97 victims did not die in vain and many owners and entertainers learned a lot from this tragedy and will act accordingly because as the saying goes, it is always better to be safe than sorry.

I want to thank the Smart Club for presenting me with a &uot;Community Service&uot; award last Sunday at Temple Beth El. I also want to thank The City of Suffolk through the Suffolk Police Department for the National Night Out Award that was also presented to me on Tuesday, Feb. 18 during the National Night Out Celebration in City Council Chambers.

This kind of thing was something new to me when it all started nine years ago almost to the date on March 6, 1994, with the Epsilon Theta Chapter of the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority. I was recognized and presented an award at that time at Laurel Hill United Church of Christ in Holland. Over the course of these nine years I have been blessed to receive at least 15 awards from various social and savings clubs, Virginia Press Association and the News-Herald. This really proves to me that days when I sacrificed time and other leisure engagements to serve the community were not really sacrifices at all but a pleasure and an honor to do because you have shown over and over again how much you have appreciated my efforts. Again I say thank you.

Evelyn Wall is a staff writer for the News-Herald.