February 20

This Day in History

Disaster

Feb 20, 2003:

Rhode Island nightclub burns

A fire at a rock concert in a West Warwick, Rhode Island, nightclub kills 100 people and seriously injures almost 200 more on this day in 2003. It was the deadliest such fire in the United States since 165 people were killed at the Beverly Hill Supper Club in Southgate, Kentucky, in 1977.

On the night of February 20, a local news crew was on hand at the Station nightclub to report on the issue of nightclub safety. (Four days earlier, 21 people had been killed during a stampede at a club in Chicago.) Helping out with the report was Jeffrey Derderian, who co-owned the Station with his brother Michael. That night, they were expecting a full house to see the heavy-metal band Great White.

Just after 11 p.m., near the beginning of the show, Daniel Biechele, Great White's tour manager, set off some pyrotechnics behind the performers, which set fire to the soundproofing foam on the ceiling. For a short time, no one realized the severity of the situation. As the fire spread rapidly, though, panic ensued. Most of the 400 people at the concert attempted to leave the club through the front entrance.

As black smoke filled the club's interior, the desperate rush of people to the front entrance caused a pile-up, trapping people where they stood. Though firefighters, who responded within minutes, worked hard to pull people to safety through the front door, 96 people died in the smoke and flames. Most of the bodies were found near the front entrance. Among the dead was Great White's guitarist, Ty Longley. Another 35 people were left in critical condition, including four who would later die from their injuries.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Daniel Biechele was indicted for setting off the pyrotechnics without a permit. He pled guilty to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter and received a sentence of four years in prison with 11 more years suspended. Michael Derderian pled guilty for his role in maintaining the Station and received a 15-year sentence (four years to serve, and 11 years suspended). His brother Jeffrey got a 10-year suspended sentence.

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