Authorities investigating the California warehouse party fire that killed 36 people have said they are considering a criminal case – even murder charges. But as relatives learned after a nightclub fire killed 100 people in Rhode Island, any prosecution would be a long and complicated road that may not end with a feeling of justice.
The 2003 fire at The Station in West Warwick was started by pyrotechnics for the rock band Great White, which set fire to foam that lined the walls as soundproofing. It was actually highly flammable packing foam, never approved for such a use, and the crowded club became an inferno in seconds.
In Oakland, investigators said this week that they were looking at a refrigerator and other electrical appliances as possible causes in the Friday night fire in the warehouse packed with wooden structures, where electricity was provided by cords that snaked through the space.
Relatives of those killed and lawyers involved in the Rhode Island case said they see troubling parallels.
In both fires, there was an alleged lack of proper permits and as well as loads of highly flammable material inside. In both, the operators were accused of ignoring safety standards, such as providing adequate fire exits. As in Rhode Island, there are suggestions that officials in Oakland didn’t do enough to inspect and monitor the building, leading to tragedy.
At The Station, inspectors failed to note the foam in their reports. They also raised the club’s capacity, so people were allowed to pack inside.
A nearly 10-month grand jury investigation resulted in involuntary manslaughter charges for three people: the club’s owners, Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, and the man who set off the pyrotechnics, Great White tour manager Daniel Biechele.
But many were outraged that the town’s fire marshal and Great White leader Jack Russell were not charged.
Dave Kane, whose son, Nicholas O’Neill, died in The Station fire, said he believes he is seeing in Oakland what he saw in Rhode Island: a rush to blame the operator of the space and to protect public officials.
“The elected officials, the fire officials, they’re the responsible ones,” Kane said, adding that families of those killed shouldn’t expect much. “Don’t get your hopes up, because too many people have to cover themselves, and that’s the problem.”
Jeff Pine, a former Rhode Island attorney general who represented Jeffrey Derderian, said The Station fire represented a “perfect storm” of things going wrong at the same time.
In such cases, manslaughter charges are more likely than murder charges, he said. To get to a murder charge, you have to show some level of criminal intent or malicious conduct, such as someone intentionally setting the fire, he said. Authorities said on Tuesday there is no indication the Oakland fire was intentionally set.
Tom Briody, who defended Biechele, said establishing criminal intent is a high burden, but there is a tendency to lower it when so many people are killed.
“The reality is that when you have a large death toll, the cases get investigated more aggressively. Ultimately, I think the burden somehow lowers itself,” he said. “Somehow, it becomes a lot easier to convince folks that someone’s to blame than when there’s a smaller amount of damage or harm.”
Biechele ultimately pleaded guilty to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter and served less than two years in prison. The Derderians pleaded no contest to the same charges without admitting guilt. Michael Derderian spent less than three years in prison, and Jeffrey Derderian got community service.
“That was rather devastating,” said Chris Fointaine, whose son, Mark, died, and whose daughter was badly injured. “The fact that one brother walked away with basically no time, and the other with what we considered a slap on the wrist.”
She said relatives of those killed became their own sort of family and drew support from each other in the years that followed.
“They need to be prepared for this to be dragging for a long, long time,” she said of the families in Oakland. “I think the only comfort that we found was in each other.”
In Rhode Island, the criminal case took more three years, and the civil cases against dozens of people and companies took six. The settlements divided among survivors and relatives of the dead totaled $176 million.
Fontaine called those settlements the most insignificant thing that happened in the case.
“To me, that was the least important. To me, seeing justice served would have been the most helpful,” she said. “We never got that justice served. And we never will.”
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