Altamont to Astroworld, but what about the sadness at home – West Warwick’s inferno
Resident of Coventry/West Warwick
The deadliest concert in American history: West Warwick, Rhode Island, Feb. 20, 2003 – The Station Nightclub fire.
In Dec. 1969, The Rolling Stones hired the Hell’s Angels as security for the concert at Altamont known as one of the deadliest rock concerts. In Nov. 2021, Travis Scott’s Astroworld festival was concluded the deadliest concert due to lack of training and poor venue rules. Although these events are both travesties, the deadliest concert in our nation's history happened here in Rhode Island for the reasons listed above – this is a concert and conspiracy that deserves attention. A tragedy is a tragedy, there is no debate, but before the sadness in a throwback, it’s time for a history recap.
In ‘69 the music industry learned what proper security ought to be and who not to hire. During the Stones’ set, a member of the Hell’s Angels security detail stabbed an attendee to death during a confrontation over a gun. A BBC throwback article cites almost 300,000 in attendance, with four births and four deaths occurring that day. The concert was a free festival at the Altamont Speedway in California. It became notorious because of the murder and the fights that were caught on film in a subsequent documentary.
Many of Gen-Z may not know about Altamont and the events that took place, but all can recall the events surrounding the tragic stampede at Astroworld. Known as the Astroworld Crush, it was caused by the crowd being corralled into one stage area and advancing as far to the front as possible. Roughly 50,000 people attended. Eight people died on site, two died in the days after and about 300 were treated for major injuries.
Nothing will negate the lives lost or those injured during these shows. But there is one extreme difference between these and the Station Nightclub fire. Location. This concert was inside – not outside.
Nestled in West Warwick, at 211 Cowesett Avenue was a rocking music venue known as the Station Nightclub. The venue was a single-story wood frame structure with an area of approximately 412 meters2, 23.5 meters in the back, 24.2 meters in the front and 20.9 meters down the side. Capacity for the building was 404 people and records show 464 were in attendance on Feb. 20, 2003. Band of the night: Great White.
Performing under the moniker Jack Russell’s Great White, tragedy struck when the bands tour manager Daniel Biechele ignited pyrotechnics that set fire to the acoustic foam lining. Biechele thought to grab four gerb fireworks and set them off inside an overfull wood venue next to foam that lined the walls, stage and ceiling. A gerb firework is a tube firework that instantly lights and produces jet sparks for 60 seconds, they also shoot up to 15 feet high and the venue was only 12 feet tall. At the time the venue was all set and up to par with fire codes, which is why the legalities over fault were drawn out for a prolonged period of time.
A total of 100 people died, and 230 were injured which equates to 90% of the audience being physically affected. A mixture of building materials, lack of automatic sprinklers, inadequate exits and the death toll alone marks the Station Nightclub fire as the 4th deadliest fire in U.S. history. The event also called for the NFPA to enact tough new code provisions for fire sprinklers and crowd management in all nightclub-type venues.
Two residents that shall remain anonymous describe running from the site, up the street to the fire station in the matter of two minutes. They explained they got there on foot as they thought it was faster than calling. People were running out on fire, firefighters were scared to enter and footage shows side doors chained shut, while screams are heard fading out and people are being trampled. There was only one point of exit for those trapped inside and it was a normal sized door with an opening of 2.95 ft in length.
This concert was America’s deadliest concert. Nine months after the fire, criminal charges were finally brought against Biechele and the club owners Michael and Jeff Derderian. They were each charged with 200 counts of involuntary manslaughter – two per death, as the counts were under two separate theories of crime: criminal-negligence manslaughter and misdemeanor manslaughter. Biechele pleaded guilty to 100 counts of misdemeanor manslaughter and the Derderian brothers pleaded no contest to 100 counts of misdemeanor manslaughter. They all took plea deals, and Biechele and Michael Derderian went to prison. Biechele served 22 months and was released. The brothers pleading no contest allowed them to avoid trial. Michael received the same sentence as Biechele and served 35 months. Jeff Derderian received 500 hours of community service. The case never sought charges for the-then fire chief, fire marshal or fire department, or lead singer Jack Russell.
The souls victimized by this fire deserve a trial. All those at fault need to be examined – so why weren’t they? This story deserves to be known just as much as Altamont and Astroworld. Since a trial won’t happen for legalities to tell the story, rock legends put together “The Guest List”, a documentary set to be released this year honoring all those involved with the Station Nightclub fire.
Dee Snider says it best, “nobody deserves to die because they wanted to see a band.”
A full list of the 100 souls lost too soon can be found on legacy.com.