Club sound manager says he warned of fire danger

Employee says he urged owner to bar pyrotechnics 3 months before fatal fire

February 26, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. - The sound manager at the nightclub where a fire killed 97 people Thursday after a band's pyrotechnic display set it ablaze said yesterday that three months ago he had advised one club owner that such displays presented a potentially deadly fire hazard.

The manager, Paul Vanner, who barely escaped the blaze, said that at least a dozen bands had used such fireworks in the club since 2000 and that the practice persisted until he asked Michael Derderian, who owns the club with his brother Jeffrey, to stop allowing them.

Officials in West Warwick said that the Station nightclub never received a town permit to set off pyrotechnics inside, as required by state law.

Vanner said he had no idea that the band Great White planned to shoot off pyrotechnics until he saw the geyser of sparks that ignited the blaze.

Vanner also said that while he was not there when town fire officials inspected the club in December, the fire marshal could not have missed the charcoal gray soundproofing foam that surrounded the stage.

Officials have said the foam might have been the reason for the fire's rapid spread. He said the material was installed about 18 months ago.

That soundproofing foam has become a central part of the investigation into the fire, a law enforcement official, who would speak only on the condition of not being named, said yesterday. Several tests have been performed on a sample of the soundproofing material, and the results of those tests are likely to play a significant role in determining whether criminal charges are filed, the official said.

The official also said investigators believed they would be able to prove that the fire was a crime and be able to file criminal charges.

"This calamity would seem to demand criminal indictments," the official said, "and we hope to get them." But the officials said that based on what they knew so far, investigators believed the blame for the fire could be cast on a variety of individuals.

"You could be talking about a lot of people with varying degrees of culpability when piled on top of one another add up to what happened," the official said, adding, "You're also talking about, in each of those cases, a lot of plausible deniability."

Vanner's account of the club's history with pyrotechnic use came as state officials began the process of assembling a grand jury to sift through the competing versions of who is to blame for one of the worst nightclub disasters in history and whether anyone should be charged with a crime.

As the investigation intensified, even people who are seemingly only peripheral to the investigation, such as Vanner, hired lawyers.

The Rhode Island attorney general, Patrick Lynch, has not yet subpoenaed either brother, but his annoyance with their refusals to fully cooperate with his office grew clearer.

"Jeff Derderian hasn't answered any questions since the fire was still burning," Lynch said in an interview yesterday on WHJJ-AM radio. Michael Derderian, who left Rhode Island over the weekend, spoke by phone to an investigator but refused to answer any questions, Lynch said.

Meanwhile, Jeffrey Pine, a former Rhode Island attorney general and a well-known lawyer and political figure in the state, confirmed last night that he has agreed to represent the Derderian brothers. He said he was satisfied that they bore no responsibility for the fire, and he questioned why Lynch seemed to be goading the brothers with daily assertions that they have not cooperated with the investigation.

"The band's cooperating but the Derderians aren't?" Pine said. "Is the person who set the fire cooperating? It's probably someone in the band."

A law enforcement official said the investigation by the statewide grand jury could take a long time but indictments were all but certain.

"Grand juries are not unbiased," the official said, referring to the emotional pull the nightclub disaster has for people in Rhode Island. "It is highly unlikely that a grand jury would not agree to indict."

The town of West Warwick also braced for the tide of lawsuits that seemed all but inevitable. The town manager, Wolfgang Bauer, said the town had only $4 million in liability insurance, which was not enough "to cover an incident like this."

Meanwhile, the process of identifying the dead was drawing to a close, Gov. Donald L. Carcieri said. So far 93 of the 97 people killed in the fire have been identified. At an afternoon news conference he said he hoped that the four remaining victims would be identified by tomorrow.

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