R.I. fire under investigation

Brooke Donald and Brooke Donald

WEST WARWICK, R.I. — As the painstaking process of identifying dozens of charred bodies began, the co-owner of the nightclub where 96 people were killed in a fast-spreading fire insisted Saturday he had no idea the rock band Great White planned to use the pyrotechnics that ignited the blaze.

Jeffrey Derderian, a local television reporter who co-owned the The Station with his brother, broke down several times as he expressed grief over the deadly fire. But he vehemently insisted the band did not have permission to use the special effect, a claim echoed by at least four other venues where the band played in the past month.

“It was a total shock to me to see the pyrotechnics going off when Great White took the stage,” he said at a news conference. Columns of sparks sprayed from the stage during the band’s first song late Thursday night, igniting foam ceiling tiles and sending more than 300 concertgoers scrambling for the exits as the club quickly filled with thick, black smoke. Fire officials said the building was engulfed in three minutes.

“Many people didn’t make it out and that is a horror our family will live with for the rest of our lives,” Derderian said.

Great White’s attorney, Ed McPherson, continued to insist the band got the go-ahead from the club’s owners to use the fireworks, and that Derderian was present when they were being set up before the band took the stage.

“Everybody wants to point fingers, it’s unfortunate that people are coming out and giving statments that are not true,” McPherson said.

Singer Jack Russell has also said their manager made sure they got the OK to send columns of sparks up the sides of the stage. And Paul Woolnough, president of Great White’s management company, said they routinely check with clubs before pyrotechnics are used.

At least 96 people were burned to death or crushed and 180 were injured in their frantic fight to escape; on Saturday, 65 people remained hospitalized, more than a dozen critically. One woman who could not be identified was being treated at Massachusetts General Hospital’s burn unit.

Witnesses described a voracious fire that tore through the building in minutes.

“I never knew a place could burn so fast,” said Robin Petrarca, 44, who said the smoke was so thick she couldn’t see an exit just 5 feet away.

Attorney General Patrick Lynch said Saturday that it’s too early to know if any criminal charges will be filed. “Justice right now for our community is us pulling together,” Lynch said. “The criminal investigation will continue. We have not rested yet.”

A day before, Lynch said charges could range from assault to murder. A spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms said there was no evidence for federal charges. Meanwhile, the medical examiner’s office — which had only positively identified 15 victims by Saturday afternoon — said it will use dental records, fingerprints and DNA to identify many more who are burned beyond recognition. Among the missing was Great White guitarist Ty Longley.

Gov. Don Carcieri, who met with the relatives of some victims, said it could be days before their identities are all known. He said he believed all the bodies had been removed.

“The effort that went on at that site is something I will never forget,” he said.

Carcieri even made an urgent appeal to local dentists to check their answering machines in case their records are needed to identify bodies.

“The critical thing is we’ve got to be positive. The last thing we want to do is make a mistake,” Carcieri said. “This is not a process that happens in one day.”