Grand jury to hear club fire evidence

Attorney general says brothers not forthcoming about fire that killed 97

February 25, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WEST WARWICK, R.I. -- A grand jury will be assembled as early as tomorrow to investigate possible criminal wrongdoing in the nightclub fire here that killed 97 people and injured almost 200 others, a law enforcement official said last night.

Members of the band Great White, the heavy metal band whose pyrotechnic stage effects started the fire that consumed the Station nightclub in a matter of minutes last Thursday night, had been subpoenead and were expected to return to Rhode Island from California, after leaving the state last weekend, the law enforcement official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A grand jury would have wide powers to question and take statements from anyone involved in the nightclub disaster, including the band, the club's owners, fire marshals who had previously inspected the club, and anybody who might have installed soundproofing that caught fire.

These steps were being taken as investigators tried to determine how a rock music show at the nightclub quickly turned into one of the worst fires in U.S. history.

The news that a grand jury would be empaneled came as law enforcement officials focused their attention yesterday on the two brothers who began to operate the nightclub in 2000, Michael and Jeffrey Derderian. The officials criticized the Derderians for not cooperating with authorities.

Also yesterday, forensic experts finished examining the bodies of the 97 victims and identified 78, Gov. Donald L. Carcieri said last night. One of those identified was Ty Longley, the guitarist for Great White.

Authorities last night searched the home of Michael Derderian for three hours, according to neighbors. Patrick Lynch, the Rhode Island attorney general, would not confirm that a search warrant had been obtained. But he said that the brothers had refused to answer crucial questions about what might have led to the fire.

"In my estimation, both Michael Derderian and Jeffrey could answer questions that we're all here looking for," Lynch said.

Among the critical issues is whether the owners of the club allowed the band to use the pyrotechnic devices, known as gerbs, that shoot out a shower of metallic sparks. In an emotional news conference Saturday night, a sobbing Jeffrey Derderian insisted that he had given no such permission. But Jack Russell, the lead singer of Great White, said the band had cleared the devices with the club.

Other investigators were focusing yesteday on the soundproofing foam that lined parts of the ceiling and walls of the one-story wooden building. On Sunday, investigators retrieved from West Warwick Town Hall records pertaining to the building, which was inspected last December by fire marshals, who found no major problems.

Investigators were trying to determine the composition and age of the soundproofing material on the premise that the material might have been highly flammable and contributed to the astonishing speed at which the building burned.

Carcieri said yesterday that medical examinations of survivors who might have inhaled fumes from the burning soundproofing could aid that aspect of the investigation.

Carcieri said President Bush had called him yesterday, offering condolences on the disaster and a promise to deliver federal disaster aid to West Warwick, a town of 30,000 people 15 miles southwest of Providence.

Carcieri said that the amount of federal aid was not discussed.

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