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Grand Jury Opens Nightclub Fire Probe

A grand jury opened an investigation Wednesday into the nightclub inferno that killed 97 people, and members of the heavy metal group whose pyrotechnics are suspected of starting the fire could testify as early as Thursday.

At least two members of the band Great White were seen entering the National Guard training center in East Greenwich where the grand jury met behind closed doors.

However, no one testified and most of the session was devoted to preliminary talks between prosecutors and lawyers for the band, according to two sources close to the case who spoke on condition of anonymity. The sources said the musicians were expected to be back before the panel as soon as Thursday.

Neil Philbin, a lawyer for lead singer Jack Russell, declined comment.

In nearby Pawtucket, more than 200 grief-stricken friends and relatives said goodbye to victim Dennis Smith, 36, who had gone to the concert at The Station because a friend had an extra ticket.

"May the lives of people like Dennis draw us closer together," said the Rev. John Kiley, the only speaker at the brief service.

About 1,000 people -- many of them teenagers -- packed St. Jude's Church in Lincoln for a memorial service for 18-year-old Nicholas O'Neill of Pawtucket, the lead singer of a band he and his brothers formed. In West Warwick, about 500 people attended a private Mass for another victim of the blaze, 38-year-old Carlos Pimental.

Flames swept through the West Warwick club last Thursday after the band set off a pyrotechnic display during its first song. The band has said it received approval to use special effects, but the two brothers who own the club have denied giving permission.

Legal experts and fire investigators said Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, along with band members, could be indicted on such state charges as involuntary manslaughter or second-degree murder. Federal charges haven't been ruled out.

The Derderians were in the process of selling the business when the fire broke out; just hours before, two men, Michael O'Connor and Daniel Gormley, filed papers with the state forming a company to run it. According to the town clerk, the Derderians were scheduled to come in the following day to begin transferring the liquor license.

The Station was also caught up in the contentious divorce of Michael Derderian, whose finances were becoming increasingly precarious, according to court records. Divorce records show Heather Derderian tried to force her husband to sell the club last year; the records also show his mounting debts, including $28,000 owed to the Internal Revenue Service.

Jeffrey Pine, an attorney for Jeffrey Derderian, said there was no indication the brothers' finances were a focus of the criminal investigation. Michael Derderian's divorce became final Wednesday.

Edward C. Roy Jr., former president of the Rhode Island Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said he would advise both the club owners and the band members to invoke their Fifth Amendment right to refuse to testify.

"It's such a catastrophic loss of life. Realistically, with 97 deaths, no lawyer is going let a client talk to law enforcement," Roy said.

Paul Vanner, the stage manager and sound engineer at the club, said Wednesday that Great White's pyrotechnics lasted longer than he was used to seeing from other bands. While most last a second or so in flashing their sparkles across the stage, this display lasted far longer.

"I've never seen it that big and that long. It was about 20 seconds," Vanner said.

He said he expressed concerns about the safety of pyrotechnics to Michael Derderian about three months ago and the co-owner "seemed to take it to heart."

Vanner said he had seen about a dozen shows that used pyrotechnics -- including about eight since he first noticed foam soundproofing at The Station 18 months ago. He said in each of those shows he was forewarned the special effects would be used. However, he said he was given no notice before the Great White show.

The soundproofing is part of the investigation. Authorities are trying to determine whether the club used an inexpensive and highly flammable brand that shouldn't have been installed.

All but four of the 97 bodies pulled from the nightclub's rubble have been identified. Gov. Don Carcieri said he has asked families for any personal items -- such as a hairbrush or toothbrush -- that could provide DNA for medical examiners to use to identify the remaining victims.

"It just is going to take time. It can be days, it can be weeks," said Carcieri, who has met with relatives still waiting for their loved ones to be identified.

"It breaks my heart that I can't give them an answer, but scientifically we're doing everything we can as fast as we can to give them an answer," he said.

More than 180 people were also injured in the fire. About 60 remain hospitalized, including 36 in critical condition.

A new national agency formed to investigate building disasters sent two officials to the burned ruins of the nightclub over the weekend. The National Construction Safety Team is expected to announce within the next few days whether it will begin a formal investigation.

Separately, the National Fire Protection Association said it has called for an immediate meeting of its top building code writers to review safety issues for buildings where large groups of people assemble. The move follows the Rhode Island disaster and an incident at a Chicago club in which 21 people were killed in a stampede.