I remember waking up back in February 2003, turning on the news, and seeing the horrifying, smoldering embers of the Station Nightclub in Rhode island.This hit me hard because it quickly became apparent that this was the first time in my show business career that the stupid actions of someone in my industry directly caused the deaths of such a large group of people (eventually, the grim total came to 100). I've also spent a fair amount of time in small rock clubs, and (although I'm not a Great White fan) I could certainly picture myself being in those poor victims' shoes. I started collecting every news account I could find on the fire, and eventually made an assignment for my Health and Safety class students to write a paper on what happened, and how it compared to another pyro-caused fire at the Fine Line Cafe a few days earlier in Minneapolis where everyone got out alive (they had sprinklers and a better trained staff). I followed the story through all the legal procedures, and I even visited the site last year (my photos and writeup here). I had thought about writing a book on the topic, but didn't have time, so I was happy to see on Erich Freind's Theatre Safety Blog that one of the lawyers involved in the case, John Barylick, had written a book. And it's the book I would have hoped to write myself (for the most part--see below).
The general story is now pretty well known: Dan Biechlele, Great White's tour manager, shot pyrotechnic "gerbs" into the back wall of the Station club, which was covered with highly flammable foam that had been installed in a misguided attempt at sound proofing. I was a bit concerned that Barylick, a lawyer, wouldn't have the technical and show business background required to really relate the technical details of this tragedy, but he did an excellent job, and I learned a lot in reading the book.
One thing I learned is what complete assholes the Derderian brothers, who owned the club, appear to be. Barylick documents many cases of them cutting every corner, clearly and illegally condoning the use of pyro in previous occasions, paying people under the table whenever possible, avoiding workman's comp, and generally being scumbags. I also learned that there was an entire extra layer of foam on the walls that I wasn't aware of, and Barylick cleared up a lot of confusion I had about the exit door by the stage, the actions of the club security staff, and many other issues, all of which are important for anyone in our industry to understand.
Clearly, the victims of this fire were innocent victims--they showed up to have a good time and 100 of them never went home, and many others went home with torturous, permanent injuries, both mental and physical (Barylick documents all this too in tragic detail). The book makes a strong case that the blame lies squarely with Biechele (who seems to be the only person involved who showed clear and apparently heartfelt remorse), the Derderian brothers, and perhaps Denis Larocque, the West Warwick fire inspector who could not plausibly have missed the entire back of the club being illegally covered in flammable foam on repeated inspections of the club. The problem for the victims, though, is that none of these truly negligent parties had any money. So the phalanx of defense lawyers went after anyone with deep pockets, as Barylink basically admits in the book. Some of these parties, such as the foam manufacturer, should be paying, since Barylick documents a long history (of which I was unaware) of the foam industry playing down the flammability of exactly this kind of foam. But then Barylick also seems proud that he was able to get $500,000 out of the tour bus company; $815,000 out of JBL Professional, who made the speakers used in the club; $5,000,000 out of Anheuser-Busch, who was running a beer promotion at the club; $22,000,000 from Clear Channel, who owns the Radio station for which the DJ who was hosting the show (and died in the fire); and the biggest settlement of all--$30,000,000-from LIN Television Corporation, who employed the cameraman who was shooting the show who may have briefly obstructed the exit.
I'm no fan of Clear Channel, but Barylick makes the ludicrous case that they should be liable because this (now tragically dead) radio DJ should also have been a pyro and local pyro law expert, and should have somehow--as he was talking to the crowd (with his back, therefore, to the stage)--noticed that three tiny, illegal and unsafe pyro charges were being set up by Biechele behind him. Similarly, Barylick contends that the beer division of Anheuser-Busch should have checked every promotion they run to make sure illegal pyro isn't used at the event. The reason? Because they also own the Busch Gardens theme park, where pyro is used. This is just an absurd argument, but these and others were apparently strong enough to get money out of the insurance companies representing these giant corporations.
Despite these issues, I think this is a well written, exhaustively researched and easy to read book, and I strongly recommend it for anyone working in our industry.
You can buy a print copy here:
The Kindle edition: