WEST WARWICK, R.I. -Three years after a nightclub fire sparked by a rock band’s pyrotechnics killed 100 people here, Michael Derderian, one of the brothers who owned The Station nightclub, is set to go to trial Tuesday on involuntary manslaughter charges.

The man whose fireworks display ignited the blaze, former Great White tour manager Daniel Biechele, is serving a four-year prison sentence after pleading guilty and tearfully apologizing in court in May.

But days before the first criminal trial in the case, many victims’ relatives say the people who most deserve to be in prison are the club owners, men they see as penny-pinchers who created unsafe conditions in the club and have never shown the same remorse as Biechele.

James Gahan, whose son, Jimmy, 21, died in the fire, recalled speaking with Attorney General Patrick Lynch during Biechele’s sentencing hearing.

“He just asked me what I thought, and I said, ‘Now, the real work starts,” Gahan said.

Derderian’s trial, expected to last months, opens with jury selection Tuesday. He and his brother, Jeffrey, whose trial will follow later, both face 200 counts of involuntary manslaughter – two counts for each person killed under separate legal theories. Involuntary manslaughter carries up to 30 years in prison in Rhode Island.

More than 200 people were also injured in the blaze, deeply affecting all corners of Rhode Island, the smallest state in the nation. Many people who live here knew someone who was killed or injured, or one of their relatives.

“The Derderians feel like the targets that the public has focused its angst, its anger on,” said Andrew Horwitz, a professor at the Roger Williams University law school in Bristol.

Prosecutors say the Derderians showed a pattern of poor management and dangerous decisions. They say the brothers installed highly flammable polyurethane foam on the walls and ceiling as soundproofing, in violation of the state fire code, and allowed bands other than Great White to use pyrotechnics as part of their acts.

They also say the Derderians did several things that made it harder to evacuate the one-story wooden club: packed too many people in the building, had an exit door that swung the wrong way and failed to display illuminated exit signs.

“Anybody who owns that type of an establishment bears a responsibility to know what the codes are and to follow them accordingly,” said Chris Fontaine, whose 22-year-old son, Mark, died in the fire. “These are people who put lives at stake.”

Fontaine said she has saved up her vacation time and plans to attend the trial every day.

Claire Bruyere, whose daughter, Bonnie Hamelin, 27, was among those killed, said: “It was their building. They were supposed to make everyone OK.”

“For people who have suffered the kind of loss that they have, it’s certainly understandable,” Derderian’s lawyer, Kathleen Hagerty, said of the families’ anger. “We’re looking at the case, obviously, legally, which is very different. If anything, I think this case will certainly shine a bright light on all that went wrong in this tragedy.”

The Derderians say the band never had permission for the pyrotechnics, but the band contends they did.

Their lawyers also say the brothers were never told the foam violated the fire code, and reports from fire inspectors who surveyed the club make no mention of the material. In addition, the salesman who sold the Derderians the foam sent an anonymous letter to prosecutors saying his company’s policy was to not educate customers about the potential dangers of the foam.

Victims’ relatives are still upset the fire inspectors who failed to detect the foam were never charged and blame them as well.

Paul Vanner, The Station’s stage manager, said the Derderians were rookie club owners but nonetheless followed the rules. He said he didn’t believe the Derderians had any idea the foam was dangerous.

“There’s no way that they would have known that,” Vanner said.

Raised in Warwick, the Derderians bought The Station in 2000, and it functioned as a popular rock music venue until the fire. Michael Derderian, a licensed pilot, was involved in varied business ventures. His brother was a television reporter well known in the region.

At a news conference held two nights after the blaze, Jeffrey Derderian broke down several times as he expressed his grief over the fire. Michael Derderian, 45, absent from The Station on the night of the fire, sat quietly next to him.

The brothers attended funerals of some victims and have made voluntary payments to the families of employees killed in the fire. But they also declared bankruptcy, freeing them from liability in pending lawsuits filed against them by victims’ families and survivors.

Relatives of those killed say they would like a more public display of remorse from the Derderians similar to that shown by Biechele, who before going to prison sent letters of apology to the families of all those killed and during his sentencing hearing said he didn’t know that he could ever forgive himself.

Though some grieving family members were furious when Biechele’s plea deal was announced and again when he was sentenced, others now call him foolish or a scapegoat.

“If Dan Biechele had never walked on the face of the earth,” Gahan said, “there probably would have been a tragedy at some point at the club.”

AP-ES-09-02-06 1213EDT


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