In a sense, the Feb. 20, 2003 fire at the Station nightclub in West Warwick, R.I., that killed 100 and injured 200 was the equivalent of 9/11 for the live entertanment business in the United States: though something that horrifying could have happened at any time, until it did, inertia kept a lax system in place, with club owners and acts bending the rules to their own perceived advantage and inspectors always behind the curve.
Society’s attempts to place responsibility for these disasters are ongoing and highly complex and necessary on many levels – it’s too bad our best efforts are usually reactive rather than proactive. The proactive nature of the war on terror is why I so staunchly support it, though this ‘”proactive” approach is itself “reactive” to 9/11.
Billboard looks at the Station tragedy:
- The tragedy — the worst in rock history — has been devastating to all involved: the families and friends of the dead, the survivors who continue to struggle with physical and mental scars, the community, the band and those who could be held legally accountable for the blaze.
Jack Russell, the lead singer of Great White, says he would not wish the past year on his worst enemy.
“I lost three really close friends and 97 other people — if I didn’t know them by name, I knew their faces,” Russell tells Billboard in a rare interview. Among the dead was guitarist Ty Longley. “They were part of our family. My life has been changed forever.”
The concert business has also been significantly changed by the fire. Most people in the touring world believe concerts of all types are safer today than they were one year ago.
“This really was a kick in the ass for a lot of people,” says Jay Nedry, owner of Jaxx, a 550-capacity club in Springfield, Va., where Great White was supposed to play the night after the ill-fated Station gig.
“People in this business are taking a better look at what they have and what could happen,” says Bart Butler, president of concert security firm Rock Solid.
“Every city we go to, the fire marshalls are more involved in things like aisle size and the flow of people than they have been in the past.”
….Safety improvements did not just occur at the club level.
“There is no question that concerts are safer now than they were before the Rhode Island fire,” says Larry Perkins, assistant GM of the RBC Center in Raleigh, N.C., and liaison with the Fire Protection Assn. for the International Assn. of Assembly Managers.
“Information and education is so important, and what happens following an unfortunate incident like this is people sit up and take notice and try to be cognizant of what it takes to be safe.”
….Countless lives have been affected by the Station fire, not the least of them that of Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch, who was sworn in just 40 days before the fire.
“This has made me a little tougher,” Lynch tells Billboard. “To stand in front of these people, some of them with horrific injuries, as a father, son, brother and a person, has been utterly painful. But it also deepens my resolve.”
As for Great White, the band has continued touring following the fire, donating proceeds after expenses to the Station Family Fund, which has raised more than $70,000 for the families of fire victims.
“That’s a pretty fair chunk of change for a band of our stature,” Russell tells Billboard. “That’s 41 shows in clubs, traveling in vans and staying in cheap motels. That part has been a good experience, and the fans have been great. I have a lot of respect for rock fans who have been coming out and supporting the fund.”
In the Station case, three criminal indictments were issued in December, following a nearly 10-month investigation by a Rhode Island grand jury.
Former Great White tour manager Dan Biechele and club owners Michael and Jeffrey Derderian were each charged with 100 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter with criminal negligence and 100 misdemeanor counts of involuntary manslaughter. Each count of manslaughter carries a maximum penalty of 30 years. All three pleaded innocent.
….The attorney general says he is seeking a “just penalty” if the defendants are found guilty. “And if they are found guilty, in my estimation a just penalty would include significant jail time.”
….The grand jury conducted its investigation independently of the numerous tragedy-related lawsuits filed at the state and federal levels, many of which name the band.
Jurisdiction is still being determined in those cases. It is estimated that more than $1 billion in damages may result. It could take at least four years for all the civil suits to be settled. Such suits typically follow criminal cases in the courts.
Great White will continue to tour and raise money for the victims’ families. To mark the anniversary, Russell says he’ll go to church Feb. 20 “for the first time in probably 20 years. I’m going to pray for the families, victims and friends we lost. I hope as time goes by, we all find some peace.”