Relatives visit site of nightclub fire as investigators search for answers

Owners leave questions unanswered, official says

February 24, 2003|By Jill Zuckman and Mike Dorning | Jill Zuckman and Mike Dorning,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WEST WARWICK, R.I. - Relatives of the dead and missing placed roses and stuffed animals at the burned-out ruins of a Rhode Island nightclub yesterday as the state's top law-enforcement official suggested that the club's owners were resisting authorities' attempts to investigate the conditions that contributed to the fire.

At an evening news conference, Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch tersely indicated that club owners Michael and Jeffrey Derderian had failed to provide complete answers to investigators.

"There are questions that all of us want answered," Lynch said. "There are outstanding questions that they have not responded to."

The Derderians are engaged in a fierce public conflict with the band Great White about whether the club's management had approved a pyrotechnic display as part of the band's performance Thursday. The fireworks ignited a fast-moving blaze that killed 97 people and injured another 187.

The Derderians have vigorously denied that they had any advance knowledge of the pyrotechnic display. The day after the blaze, managers of several clubs elsewhere in the nation said the band had used fireworks at performances without notifying them.

But the band has adamantly maintained that it received verbal approval from the club's management to use fireworks, and a Boston band has said the club permitted it to include a fireworks display at a performance last summer. Pyrotechnic displays are not allowed without a permit in Rhode Island, and local officials have said no such permit was ever issued to the Derderians' club, The Station.

Authorities in Rhode Island also have raised questions about whether the club was crowded beyond its capacity and about the soundproofing material used at the club. The material appeared to ignite quickly in a video of the band's performance that was shot by a local television station.

Jeffrey Derderian, who is also a local television reporter, gave a tearful statement to the news media Saturday night, saying he had no knowledge that fireworks would be used and denying any other reckless behavior by the club's management.

Lynch pointedly contrasted Derderian's news conference with his cooperation with law-enforcement authorities.

"I would hope Mr. Derderian is as cooperative with the law-enforcement agencies as he has been with the press," Lynch said.

Kathleen Hagerty, an attorney for the Derderians, did not respond to messages left at her home and office last night. Michael Derderian did not respond to a message left on his home voice mail, and a recording at the home of Jeffrey Derderian indicated that his answering machine had been turned off.

Earlier yesterday, the families of the dead and missing visited the site of the fire.

With news media kept at a distance and a 5-mile no-fly zone established around the club to ensure privacy, a line of 11 buses carried family members through a steady rain to the ruins. One passenger lowered her head into her hands as the caravan passed an encampment of journalists.

A 6-foot-tall wooden cross stood beside a chain-link fence surrounding the site. Many families tucked photos of the victims and notes of grief into the fence.

Someone left a rosary-draped plaque reading: "No farewell words were spoken, no time to say goodbye. You were gone before we knew it, and only God knows why."

As the families made their pilgrimage, a team of medical examiners kept working to identify remains of the victims.

Elizabeth A. Laposata, Rhode Island's chief medical examiner and head of the forensic-pathology investigation in the case, said the federal Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team sent 25 people from around the country to help.

By early yesterday evening, 42 bodies had been identified.

Rhode Island Gov. Donald L. Carcieri announced that investigators going through the wreckage had discovered an additional body Saturday, adding one more casualty to the previous toll of 96 victims.

"These families are going through such a tragedy, such an emotional odyssey right now, and their hearts are broken, and they still don't know in many cases whether their loved one has been positively ID'd," said Carcieri, who has met with the families several times.

Carcieri said that authorities hoped to identify "the vast majority" of the dead by tonight. Doctors in Boston also were able to ascertain the name of the last of the unidentified "Jane Does" among the injured.

The mother of the injured woman had spent much of the past few days at a local hotel where hundreds of relatives of missing club patrons have gathered. According to a Red Cross official, applause broke out at the hotel when the woman announced that her daughter was alive. But the news effectively quelled hopes that others' loved ones would be found alive.

In an effort to prevent a similar tragedy, Carcieri announced a temporary state ban on indoor pyrotechnic displays at clubs accommodating 50 to 350 people. He also ordered fire and building inspectors to re-examine all public venues in the state to check for safety problems.

Jill Zuckman and Mike Dorning are reporters for the Chicago Tribune. Wire services contributed to this article.

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