By LAURA WEICK The author of a book on the Station nightclub fire asked readers to consider all angles of the tragedy during a discussion hosted by the Cranston Public Library Saturday afternoon. Scott James, the author of "Trial by Fire: A New
The author of a book on the Station nightclub fire asked readers to consider all angles of the tragedy during a discussion hosted by the Cranston Public Library Saturday afternoon.
Scott James, the author of “Trial by Fire: A New Examination of the Station Nightclub Fire,” spoke about his book virtually. Journalist Pamela Watts hosted the event, which was attended by 82 people. You can watch the full presentation at crowdcast.io/e/trial-by-fire-a-new.
The fourth-deadliest nightclub fire in the United States occurred just over 18 years ago on Feb. 20, 2003, killing 100 people and injuring 230. The rock band Great White performed that night at the West Warwick club, but pyrotechnics the tour manager launched at the beginning of the show lit the acoustic foam on the walls on fire, trapping people in the building.
In addition to the foam insulation being highly flammable, the building had no fire sprinklers and was over capacity when the fire happened. James said the building was not properly inspected, which is detailed in his book.
“Part of the reason for writing this book is because I’d like to say that we’ve learned some lessons, but I don’t think we did,” James said. “I think we can’t forget this case. We should not forget this case. It’s important for people to remember this tragedy because it’s still happening today.”
James, an author and journalist based in San Francisco, grew up in a suburb of Providence. Although he wasn’t in Rhode Island when the fire occurred, he said the event has haunted Rhode Islanders for years.
“When I would come back [to visit family in Rhode Island] people would say, ‘You know, I’m not sure we ever got the full story because there were never any trials,” James said. “And people had the sense that justice was never served. I heard this for many, many years and after a while I decided I would start to ask some questions to answer their concerns.”
Station nightclub owners Jeffrey and Michael Derderian and Great White’s tour manager Daniel Biechele were each charged with involuntary manslaughter. Biechele pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 15 years in prison, although he was later released on parole. The Derderian brothers pleaded no contest to avoid trial, so Michael was sentenced to 15 years in prison while Jeffrey received a 10-year suspended sentence, three years of probation and 500 hours of community service. Michael was later released on parole.
James said early in his investigation he learned that there had been mock trials for both the brothers and Biechele. While Biechele was found guilty in one of these mock trials, the Derderians were not convicted in their mock trial. This made James curious if there was evidence the mock jurors saw that the general public did not that resulted in the convictions.
He said the book recounts “fly on the wall” moments including a conversation between then-Gov. Donald Carcieri and the editor of the Providence Journal at the time about what to reveal to the public, as well as a recount of when the victims’ families heard who would get charged for the fire.
James also spoke with the Derderian brothers for the book, an anomaly since the brothers have been notoriously tight-lipped about the incident with the press. James said he knew Jeffrey Derderian from when he worked at ABC6 in Providence, so he eventually persuaded him and his brother to be interviewed.
“People have been told one version of events, the government’s version of events, over and over and over and over again for now 18 years,” James said. “So along comes this book that says, ‘Well, wait a minute. There are other facts for you to consider.’ Now they might not change your mind or how you feel about this, but now we’re going to lay them all out so you can see for yourself and make a decision, so you get more sides to the story than you’ve ever had.”
When Watts opened the floor to questions, Brian Wilk asked James through the chat if he felt the punishment given to the Derderians was fair. James said it all depends on your point of view.
“Some people have described this book as a whodunit,” James said. “Perhaps, but I’m not telling you whodunit. I’m laying it all out there so you could decide who would be culpable, if it’s the systems, or the institutions, and whether or not justice was served. This is where you decide, not for me to tell you.”
Another commenter, Keith Francoeur, said he read a review of the book that described James as biased in favor of the Derderians. James said he never said the brothers weren’t responsible in the book, but that the book presents multiple perspectives, including the Derderians’.
One of the narratives heavily featured in the book is that of Gina Russo, a survivor of the fire who lost her fiancé that night as well.
In an interview following the online presentation, Russo told the Cranston Herald she did not finish the first chapter of the book since it was too difficult emotionally for her to read, but that she heard about what was included through friends and phone calls from the community.
James interviewed Russo for the book but Russo said she did not realize how featured her story would be. She wishes she had been informed about how big her story would be in the book. Russo also said some information she heard was in the book was not entirely factual, particularly regarding the legal aspects, and she wishes James investigated them more.
However, Russo said she was glad the Derderian brothers had the opportunity to share their perspectives, and said James had noble intentions.
“[James is] a very nice guy and I know what he’s trying to do, it’s about never forgetting,” Russo said. “I hope it puts everyone on the road to a healing process.”