Kin of nightclub victims say families likely to face long road
providence, r.i.» 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 have said they’re looking at 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 a lack of proper permits and 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 the deadliest fire in the U.S. since the 2003 blaze.
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.
Official: Fire trapped people on 2nd floor
The fire that killed 36 people during a dance party at an Oakland warehouse grew rapidly and was raging by the time people on the second floor of the building detected it, trapping them upstairs, investigators said. Federal investigators provided the details Wednesday. With the death toll at 36, officials earlier announced that recovery efforts at the site have ended. Jill Snyder, special agent in charge of the San Francisco office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said it appears the fire started on the first floor “and the occupants were consumed by smoke before they could get out of the building.” She said smoke traveled up two stairwells, trapping the occupants on the second floor. The news comes a day after Oakland officials declared a local state of emergency.
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 a message to families in Oakland: “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 simultaneously.
In such cases, when there is no malicious conduct or criminal intent, manslaughter is more likely, he said. Authorities said Wednesday there is no evidence of arson.
But Robert Weisberg, a Stanford law professor, said under California law, second-degree murder could be proved if a person knows there is an extreme risk of death and goes forward anyway for selfish reasons.
“They’re hard to win, but it’s legally plausible,” he said.
Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley has said Oakland investigators are looking into “Who knew what? Who ignored what, and who completely disregarded what?”
Warehouse operator Derick Ion Almena deflected questions from NBC’s “Today” about whether he should be held accountable, but said he signed a lease for building that was “to city standards, supposedly,” and said his three children slept there at night. The night of the fire they were staying at a hotel.