Sifting The Embers In Rhode Island

Six-hundred dollars. That's how much more money it would have cost the owners of a Rhode Island nightclub to buy fire-resistant sound insulation instead of the highly flammable packaging foam that was used to line the walls and ceiling of the Station. That's also likely to be the lowest dollar amount discussed in relation to the tragic Feb. 20 fire that left 97 dead and an entire state grieving. As a grand jury looks into the fire and victims' families regroup, the circle of blame is growing wider, setting the stage for the lawsuits yet to come.

There are plenty of likely defendants. There's a dispute as to whether Great White, the '80s heavy-metal band that set off the fireworks that started the fire, told the club about their planned pyrotechnics show. The Station's owners, brothers Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, are being accused of overpacking the club and of not having a fire marshall on duty. Even the company that sold the packaging foam and the company that made the fireworks are drawing scrutiny.

But none of those pockets are likely to be very deep. "Add up all the insurance and it's going to pale in comparison to the actual value of these claims," says Michael St. Pierre, the president of the Rhode Island Bar Association. "That's the second tragedy." It's also bad news for West Warwick, where the Station was located; Town Manager Wolfgang Bauer is already preparing for legal battles. He noted: "If you were a plaintiff, who would you seek damages from? A bankrupt club owner? Or a town that has the ability to collect taxes?" It won't help that local inspectors visited the club three times in the past year, yet seemed not to have checked out the faulty foam.

In the end, civil lawsuits may be the least of the worries. Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch is looking into whether criminal charges are warranted. "I will go to the ends of this earth to see that justice is done," he said.