Will the full story of the 2003 Station nightclub fire ever be told? One of Rhode Island’s top newspaper editors says the stark answer is “No.”
Joel P. Rawson, executive editor of the Providence Journal, says that four years after one of Rhode Island’s, and the nation’s, worst fire disasters, there has yet to be a comprehensive, official accounting. And he doubts that there will be.
“The thing about the Station fire — and this is huge — there never has been a public forum on the government’s performance on the Station fire,” Rawson said during a March 13 discussion at the University of Rhode Island about Station public records. “One-hundred people died. We really don’t know why. We’ve never had a discussion on this.”
Rawson says that none of the state officials with the clout to convene a sweeping inquiry — Governor Donald L. Carcieri, General Assembly leaders, and Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch — have done so.
Lynch, of course, put a criminal case before a grand jury, which indicted nightclub co-owners Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, and Daniel M. Biechele, the rock band tour manager who ignited fireworks triggering the fire. The defendants’ pleas negated a court trial. Civil trials are pending, and in a historic move, usually secret grand jury records are being made public.
But Rawson says the grand jury did not resolve some questions, including the often-mentioned role of West Warwick town officials, who established the nightclub’s crowd limits and whose inspections didn’t flag sound-proofing foam that accelerated the fire.
Rawson’s comments came during a session sponsored by Access/Rhode Island, an open-government coalition, and URI’s journalism department. It was a striking assessment, given that Rawson led a journalistic inquiry unprecedented in Rhode Island. The ProJo assigned more than 60 reporters to interview Station survivors, designed computer models, commissioned laboratory tests and wrote hundreds of stories, with its database now showing 1830 items with the words “Station nightclub.”
The Phoenix sought comment from Governor Carcieri, House Speaker William J. Murphy (who represents West Warwick, the site of the fire), Senate President Joseph A. Montalbano, and Lynch. Only the attorney general responded — and frostily.
A trial focused on specific criminal charges might not have answered all questions, says Lynch, who adds that since civil cases are pending, some witnesses might resist an out-of-court forum. Still, 13,000 pages of grand jury documents are public, Lynch says, and the federal government sponsored two reports, on fire safety and the state’s emergency response to the blaze. “The ‘public forum’ that Mr. Rawson is proposing — would it be an inquest?” Lynch asks. “Who would conduct it? Who would have the legal authority to conduct it?”
At the URI session, Rawson noted the tragedy’s lingering impact: “The Station fire, in a way, happened to all of us.” One of the editor’s reactions was wondering whether his son was at the club, a thought that informed his coverage in the following years.
“It was a huge event,” he says. “I don’t come away from it feeling good.”