Kin of night­club vic­tims say fam­i­lies likely to face long road

The Denver Post - - NATION & WORLD - By Michelle R. Smith

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.

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