Band member testifies; relatives of victims sue

Wednesday, March 5, 2003

WEST WARWICK, R.I. -- At least one member of Great White testified Tuesday before a grand jury deciding whether criminal charges should be filed in the deadly nightclub fire sparked by the band's pyrotechnic display.

Also Tuesday, relatives of two of the 98 people killed in the Feb. 20 blaze filed what is believed to be the first lawsuit filed in the tragedy.

The band's guitarist, Mark Kendall, told WBZ-TV of Boston he had testified briefly before the grand jury and expected to return. Kendall and bassist David Filice were seen leaving the National Guard facility in East Greenwich where the grand jury has been meeting.

The band's lawyer, Ed McPherson, would say only that band members are cooperating fully.

Investigators have said the fire at The Station nightclub in West Warwick started when sparks from Great White's pyrotechnics ignited the polyurethane soundproofing, spreading flames that engulfed the building in a matter of minutes.

Among those killed was Great White guitarist Ty Longley.

Members of the band have said they had permission to use the fireworks, a claim the club's owners deny.

Experts say the egg-crate foam the club used for soundproofing is 20 times more flammable than wood and emits a dense, toxic smoke. The club's owners said they had no idea the panels were dangerous when they were installed, and fire inspections at the club failed to note the material was covering the walls.

Relatives of two victims sued Great White, club owners Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, the town of West Warwick, town Fire Inspector Denis Larocque and American Foam Corp., which sold the club the soundproofing.

Brian Cunha, an attorney for the families of Tina Ayer, 33, of Warwick, and Donald Rodriques, 46, of Fall River, Mass., said he will seek at least $1 million for each family in the wrongful death suit.

State Rep. Tim Williamson, who is also the town solicitor for West Warwick, called the lawsuit premature because the fire is still being investigated. McPherson declined to comment, and American Foam and attorneys for the Derderians did not return calls seeking comment.

Fire prevention experts said it is unfair to point blame at Larocque, who visited the club most recently in December 2002. Larocque has not returned repeated calls and, according to the town manager, has not spoken with investigators.

In West Warwick, Larocque is a one-man fire prevention division in a city of 30,000.

"The state fire marshal's office is grossly undermanned, and so is every fire prevention division in the state," said East Providence Fire Chief Gerald A. Bessette. "Until that changes, things are going to go undetected. That's the sad truth."

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