Published February 25, 2003
| Associated Press
PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Forensic experts have identified 78 of the 97 people who died as they tried to escape a raging nightclub fire, the governor said. Meanwhile, investigators were focusing in part on the soundproofing material that burst into flames, and trying to determine if the panels were made of a highly flammable polyurethane foam.
At a news conference late Monday, Gov. Don Carcieri said he expected the bodies of the other 19 victims to be identified but warned it could take longer and require DNA samples.
Investigators in the West Warwick nightclub tragedy were awaiting a lab analysis to determine exactly what the soundproofing tiles were made of. State law bars flammable acoustic material from the walls of gathering spaces such as bars and clubs.
"If it was (polyurethane), then the governor's going to want an answer to the question, 'Why was it there?"' the governor's spokesman, Jeff Neal, said Monday.
As they worked, thousands of people turned out to mourn the victims who died in the inferno last Thursday at The Station.
The fire began last Thursday during the first song of the night by the band Great White. Pyrotechnics apparently set fire to soundproofing behind and above the stage, sending flames ripping through the club in minutes.
The band has said it had permission to use the special effects, a claim disputed by the club's owners.
Some soundproofing experts who have seen television video of the disaster said that because the building was quickly engulfed by flames and awash in black smoke, they believe the material used at The Station was polyurethane foam -- a commonly used, inexpensive alternative to fire-resistant panels many experts prefer.
"It's a common mistake many people make, not evaluating their materials," said P.J. Nash, a national soundproofing distributor based in San Diego, Calif. "Polyurethane foam is extremely flammable, and if you breath that smoke, it's going to knock you out in a minute."
A polyurethane panel typically costs about $150 while a melamine panel, which experts say withstands heat and is tested for fire resistance, sells for nearly $250.
The club passed a fire inspection Dec. 31, but it wasn't clear if the soundproofing material was checked or would normally be during a routine inspection. West Warwick Fire Chief Charles Hall declined comment on the investigation.
State Attorney General Patrick Lynch wouldn't comment Monday on whether the material had been identified but said: "It's certainly one of the elements we're looking at."
In West Warwick, 15 miles southwest of Providence, thousands of friends and relatives -- many with tears in their eyes -- gathered at the city's civic center to remember the 97 victims.
"All of us who were raised in West Warwick who attended local schools and who make our homes here are grieving especially. This is a tragedy that will take years for our close knit community to come to grips with," state House Speaker William Murphy said.
About a dozen school bus drivers came to say goodbye to one of their colleagues, Robert Reisner, 29, who was remembered as a rock 'n' roll fan who would bend over backward for anyone. They came to the vigil in Reisner's bus.
"There is no doubt in my mind that he was letting people out of the club in front of him," said bus driver Danny Manns. "He was a gentleman."
Earlier in nearby Warwick, hundreds of people packed St. Gregory the Great Church to pay tribute to the victims with songs and prayers. One pastor asked the grieving families to hold up pictures of their lost relatives so mourners can "know for a moment those you loved."
"It's true that some good may come from this disaster, but the event itself is only tragic and will never make sense," the Rev. John E. Holt said at St. Gregory the Great Church.
The governor on Monday announced the creation of a relief fund for people affected by the tragedy and a tip line for anyone who was at the club and had information that might help investigators. The attorney general asked that anyone with photographs or videotape of the club's interior contact his office.
Carcieri has declared a moratorium on pyrotechnic displays at venues that hold fewer than 300 people. Deputy fire marshals began sweeping through Rhode Island clubs Monday.
Authorities have also begun interviewing employees at nightclubs in other states where employees say Great White used pyrotechnics without prior notice. The attorney general wouldn't confirm or deny a broadcast report that a grand jury would convene later this week.
Earlier Monday, Lynch had said one of the club's owners, Jeffrey Derderian, has not answered questions since the fire. The other co-owner, Michael Derderian, has never answered questions, the attorney general said.
"I believe the Derderians might be able to provide some answers that may assist all of us," Lynch said.
Kathleen Hagerty, an attorney for the Derderians, issued a statement Monday saying the brothers had provided information to West Warwick police.
"They want all information to be made available to ensure that a tragedy like this will never happen again. To that end, we have arranged to share information with the Department of the Attorney General, and have been in contact with prosecutors since Friday morning," she said.