Great White Band Manager Faces Relatives of Club-Fire Victims

Watching her severely burned daughter go through 35 operations over two months before doctors took the young woman off life support was "a journey of hell," Ann Gruttadauria told the court Monday as a sentencing hearing began for a man she holds responsible.

Her 33-year-old daughter had gone to The Station nightclub in West Warwick for a heavy metal concert on Feb. 20, 2003. The band had just started its first set when tour manager Daniel Biechele set off a pyrotechnics display that sparked the state's deadliest fire. Pamela Gruttadauria was its 100th victim.

"How can you decide whether to keep your daughter alive or not?" Ann Gruttadauria asked in court. "We knew she would not have a good life. She was totally destroyed."

Biechele, 29, pleaded guilty in February to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter and faces up to 10 years in prison. Before the judge sentences him, though, Biechele is hearing from the victims' relatives.

Some sobbed and reached for the boxes of tissue that were placed throughout the courtroom Monday as parents spoke about the holes that had been left in their lives.

Eileen DiBonaventura spoke about her 18-year-old son, Albert Anthony DiBonaventura. She described the agony of waiting to hear what had happened to him and how she felt when she learned he was among the dead.

"I died inside at that point," she said. "A parents worst nightmare had come true for us. Why did this have to happen?"

About 30 people planned to read statements in court Monday and Tuesday, and a representative from the attorney general's office planned to read prepared remarks from others.

Biechele also has a chance to address the court before Superior Court Judge Francis J. Darigan Jr. sentences him on Wednesday.

Darigan opened Monday's hearing by cautioning those who planned to make victim impact statements against making remarks about Biechele, and told them not to address Biechele directly. He said family members would not be allowed to display pictures of their family members during the hearing, as some did when Biechele pleaded guilty.

On the night of fire, the heavy metal band Great White had launched into its first set when Biechele ignited four small pyrotechnic devices near the stage. The 15-foot streams of sparks quickly ignited flammable foam that been put up as soundproofing, and the fire spread as people tried to push their way out through crowded doors.

Many of the concertgoers who jammed the club south of Providence swarmed toward the front door, only to become overcome by fumes and blocked by others also rushing to get out. In addition to the 100 people who perished, more than 200 people were injured.

Criminal charges are still pending against the club's owners, brothers Jeffrey and Michael Derderian. Both have pleaded not guilty.

In Biechele's case, the attorney general's office is seeking the maximum sentence under his plea deal, saying he acted callously and recklessly. Biechele's lawyers are asking for community service rather than jail time, saying he never intended to harm anyone and could not have known about the foam on the club's walls.

Biechele has said he had used the pyrotechnics in previous Great White concerts and had permission from Michael Derderian to use them that night. The Derderians have said no such permission was ever given.

Though many victims' relatives were angered by Biechele's plea deal, others hold him less responsible than the club owners or fire inspectors who did not detect the flammable foam.

"It was stupid, what he did, but I know he didn't do it on purpose," said Richard Lapierre of Oxford, Mass., whose 29-year-old son, Keith, died in the blaze.

Michael Derderian's trial is scheduled to begin July 31. A trial date hasn't been set for his brother.

Biechele now lives in Florida and works at a flooring company while taking accounting classes at night, his lawyers said in a recent court filing. He has written personal letters of apology to the victims' families.