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Political Fallout of a Human Tragedy

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Good morning. It’s February 20. Tonight in 2003, 100 people were killed in a raging nightclub fire in the Rhode Island town of West Warwick.

The deadly blaze erupted at a club called The Station during a performance of the heavy metal band Great White. Pyrotechnics ignited by the band’s manager set the ceiling on fire, consuming the structure in a fireball in five minutes.

Because it happened in our digital age, the tragedy can be seen on YouTube – a local television news cameraman was there filming the concert. It’s all there: the band, the fireworks, the ensuing blaze, the stampede for the exits, and the horror the viewer feels knowing that so many young people are trapped inside.

Firefighters were there within minutes, but it was too late. It was really too late the moment the ceiling caught fire. Besides the 100 who died in the inferno, some 200 were injured or burned, some grievously. Of the 430 people in The Station that night, only 132 escaped unharmed. And they carry other kinds of scars with them.

So do the club’s owners, the band members (who lost one of their own), local officials who allowed this disaster to happen and, most of all, the families of the young people who perished.

We hear a lot of talk in 21st century American politics from Democrats about the need for strong government intervention and oversight in our lives. From Republicans comes the predictable rejoinder about how government regulation stifles creativity and economic growth – and that if there must be government intrusion it should be at the local level.

The Station fire on February 20, 2003, shows how hollow such bromides can sound. This was a failure at every level, from the private owners of the club and the visiting artists, to the governmental authorities – local authorities – who turned a blind eye to an impending disaster.

The fire started when band manager Daniel Michael Biechele lit the illegal pyrotechnics, but the stage was set for tragedy much earlier. Before being converted to a nightclub, The Station had previously been a restaurant. Under state regulations, its new usage required it be equipped with ceiling sprinklers. It wasn’t.

The owners of the converted club, brothers Michael and Jeffrey Derderian, had responded to neighbors’ complaints about the noise from heavy metal music by personally installing highly flammable soundproofing material on doors, walls, and parts of the ceiling that was not up to code. Furthermore, they defied the local fire marshal by reversing some egress doors so that they opened inward, instead of outward. Like Biechele, they later pled guilty to criminal charges.

That fire marshal, Denis P. Larocque, wasn’t some distant Washington bureaucrat. He was a local fireman, who still lives a couple miles away from the site of the blaze. Larocque, who was questioned pointedly by a grand jury, but spared indictment, claimed he never noticed the illegal soundproofing material even though he'd inspected the building twice. It was Larocque who also increased the club’s capacity from 258 to over 400.

Although excoriated by victims’ families, he still declines to speak publicly.

Daniel Biechele, by contrast, demonstrated the value of an apology. Alone among the various culprits he has been forgiven by many of the families. For one thing, he spared West Warwick the specter of a trial by going against his lawyer’s advice and pleading guilty to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter.

He accepted his sentence – four years in prison – without complaint, and in court that day he expressed remorse in terms that left some family members in tears. And from his prison cell, he followed up by sending handwritten letters to all 100 families.

“Dear Nick O’Neill’s family and friends,” one such letter began to the family of an 18-year-old Johnston, R.I., youth killed that night. “Please allow me to start by apologizing for the part I played in Nick’s tragic death and for taking so long to convey this apology to you.”

Biechele was paroled after two years. Some family members thought it was too little time for 100 deaths; others have forgiven the former band manager and said they hoped he could find room in his heart to forgive himself.

"Do I hold him partly responsible for what happened to my son? Yes, I do," Chris Fontaine told the Boston Globe. Fontaine’s 22-year-old son died in the fire, along with his daughter’s fiancé. But he thought no more good would be done by keeping Biechele in prison longer.

“I think it was a bad judgment call, but … he is the only one [who] demonstrated any remorse whatsoever for what happened,” Fontaine said. “And I didn’t feel it was put on. It felt genuine.”

Meanwhile, the upshot in Rhode Island and nearby Massachusetts was a spate of new fire and crowd regulations, ranging from the compulsory installation of sprinklers in venues serving more than 100 people, to criminal penalties for blocked exits, along with mandatory crowd control training.

By and large, business owners have complied with these requirements without complaint.

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