Nightclub owner: I could have left Rhode Island, but won’t


WARWICK, R.I. (AP) – Jeffrey Derderian could avoid the never-ending reminders of the heartache and hate caused by a deadly fire at his nightclub simply by moving from this insular and close-knit state.

He’d eliminate the risk of encountering grieving victims’ relatives while running errands at the bank or the supermarket. But that would leave him unable to fulfill his desire to help those very same people – and so he remains here in Rhode Island.

“Either you do nothing and you move away and you tell people you used to live in Rhode Island and you go on and try and act like this didn’t happen – but it did happen,” Derderian said Thursday as he announced an education fund to help the more than 75 children who lost a parent in the Feb. 20, 2003, fire that killed 100 people and injured more than twice that many.

It was Derderian’s first news conference since just after the fire, which began when pyrotechnics from the rock band Great White ignited flammable soundproofing foam lining the walls of The Station nightclub in neighboring West Warwick.

As owners of the club, Jeffrey Derderian and his brother Michael drew scorn from many for installing cheap foam that fueled the flames and for running a business that prosecutors said cut safety corners. Though the brothers say they didn’t know the material was dangerous, anger grew when they reached plea deals last fall on involuntary manslaughter charges and received sentences that some felt were too lenient.

Jeffrey Derderian was given a suspended sentence with probation and community service. His brother is serving four years in prison, as is former Great White tour manager Daniel Biechele, who pleaded guilty last year to igniting the pyrotechnics without a permit.

Derderian acknowledged that raw anger by saying he understood there was nothing he or his brother could do to erase the pain of people who lost loved ones.

“This isn’t meant to make everything all go away, be nice-nice, let’s forget that fire ever happened,” Derderian said. “It happened on our doorstep. There’s not a day that we don’t live with that.”

The fund is being directed by the Derderian families and the family of longtime Derderian friend, Jody King, whose brother Tracy was a bouncer at the club and died in the fire. The families and other board members of the fund joined Derderian at the news conference.

Derderian said the Station Education Fund plans to expenses such as tutoring, books, field trips and athletic equipment. He also is encouraging colleges and universities to waive tuition for the children.

He said he and his brother planned other initiatives to benefit victims’ relatives, but that it was premature to discuss them.

Derderian said he understands that some family members say they won’t accept money from a charity associated with the brothers. But he said there have been some positive reactions, too.

Ria Latulippe, whose husband Dale died in the fire and whose 12-year-old son, Dustin, plays the drums and enjoys acting and singing, said she liked the idea but was skeptical that there’d be enough money to make a difference.

“If the money’s there for the education, for the children, that’s great,” said Latulippe, of Carver, Mass., but added, “I’m not going to hold my breath.”

Derderian pledged to speak with lawyers for fire survivors and victims’ relatives, who have sued dozens of defendants – including foam manufacturers, the state of Rhode Island, the former West Warwick fire inspector and the members of Great White.

While the Derderians were also named as defendants, they have since declared bankruptcy, releasing them from liability.

“We’re anxious, to put it mildly, to give our thoughts on the events,” Derderian said.

The Station Education Fund does not count toward the 500 hours of community serve that Derderian was ordered to perform. He is fulfilling that commitment with a national burn survivors’ group and a local fire and rescue squad. He said he already has completed nearly 400 hours of service and expects to finish well before the September 2009 deadline.

Jeffrey Derderian said Thursday his brother had a rough time in prison at first and was doing “the best that he can.” Michael Derderian was disciplined late last year for having an unauthorized visit at the auto body shop where he was serving work release.

“We also know, and he also knows, that it’s hard – and harder – for a lot of other families that lost people or that were burned in the fire or that don’t have the freedom to be able to do some of the things that they used to be able to do,” he said.

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AP-ES-07-19-07 1752EDT