Grand Jury Opens R.I. Club Fire Probe

A few miles from the blackened ruins of the Station nightclub, about two dozen citizens will hear how the Feb. 20 tragedy unfolded -- from the pyrotechnic display that ignited the blaze to the crush o

A few miles from the blackened ruins of the Station nightclub, about two dozen citizens will hear how the Feb. 20 tragedy unfolded -- from the pyrotechnic display that ignited the blaze to the crush of people who tried to escape. After sifting through the conflicting versions of what happened, the grand jury will decide whether anyone should be held responsible for the fire that took 97 lives in West Warwick, R.I.

Their work began behind closed doors yesterday (Feb. 26) at a National Guard training center in East Greenwich, the same day weeping family members and friends began burying their loved ones. Most of the grand jury session was devoted to preliminary talks between prosecutors and lawyers for the rock band Great White, according to two sources close to the case who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Lt. Col. Mike McNamara, a spokesman for the National Guard, said no grand jury proceedings were being held at the center today, but the panel was expected to return tomorrow. Two members of Great White went to the center where the panel was meeting but did not testify yesterday. Sources said the musicians were expected to be before the panel soon.

Lead singer Jack Russell told WHJJ-AM radio the fire has been "the most horrible experience" of his life. Guitarist Mark Kendall said the tragedy has devastated the band members: "The loss of all the people, I mean, it's shocking, it numbs you."

The band has said it received approval to use special effects, but the two brothers who own the club have denied they gave permission. Legal experts and fire investigators said club owners Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, along with band members, could be indicted on such state charges as involuntary manslaughter or second-degree murder.

All but four of the 97 bodies pulled from the nightclub's rubble have been identified. Gov. Don Carcieri said he's asked families for any personal items that could provide DNA for medical examiners. About 60 people remained hospitalized yesterday, including 36 in critical condition.

The Derderians were in the process of selling the nightclub when the fire broke out; just hours before, two men, Michael O'Connor and Daniel Gormley, filed papers with the state forming a company to run it. According to the town clerk, the Derderians were scheduled to come in the following day to begin transferring the liquor license.

The Station was also caught up in the contentious divorce of Michael Derderian, whose finances were becoming increasingly precarious, according to court records. Divorce records show Heather Derderian tried to force her husband to sell the club last year; the records also show his mounting debts, including $28,000 owed to the Internal Revenue Service.

Jeffrey Pine, an attorney for Jeffrey Derderian, said there was no indication the brothers' finances were a focus of the criminal investigation. Michael Derderian's divorce became final yesterday.

But the nightclub's soundproofing is part of the probe. Authorities are trying to determine whether the club used an inexpensive and highly flammable brand that shouldn't have been installed. The governor said there are conflicting reports about whether the Derderians knew what kind of insulation was used.

Pine said materials dealing with whether the band had permission to use the pyrotechnics had been given to the attorney general's office. "I believe some of the documents corroborate that fact the permission was not given," he said.

Meanwhile, Great White guitarist Ty Longley, who was among the casualties, will be remembered with a musical tribute featuring groups from his home town, his family said. "It's going to be a jam session," said his father, J. Patrick Longley. "I don't want it to be a concert. I want it to be music." No date has been set for the tribute, which will be open to the public.

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