Book Review: "Killer Show: The Station Nightclub Fire" by John Barylick
KILLER SHOW - The Station Nightclub Fire, America's Deadliest Rock Concert
Author: John Barylick
304 pages / University Press of New England, 2012
February 20, 2013, marked the tenth anniversary of one of the deadliest nightclub fires in American history at The Station, a run-down roadhouse in the working class town of West Warwick, Rhode Island. On this particular night the Station was hosting the '80s hard rock band Great White, who unwisely punctuated their entrance onto the club's tiny stage with a fireworks display. Within seconds, sparks from the onstage pyrotechnics had ignited sheets of highly flammable polyurethane foam that had been placed on the club's walls as a soundproofing measure, causing a fast moving blaze that burned the building to the ground, killing 100 people (including one member of the band) and horrifically injuring dozens of others.
The finger-pointing and blame game to determine who was ultimately at fault for the disaster went on for the next several years, and now John Barylick, a Rhode Island attorney and key figure in the lengthy legal battle to compensate victims of the fire, tells the Station's entire tragic story in his book, KILLER SHOW: The Station Nightclub Fire, America's Deadliest Rock Concert.
There's No Good Guys Here...
Mr. Barylick's extensively researched, engrossing book covers the length and breadth of the Station tragedy, starting with a short history of West Warwick and of the Station building itself, which had existed (under a variety of owners and purposes) since the 1940s.
When brothers Jeffrey and Michael Derderian purchased The Station in 2000, it was a low-rent rock palace described ironically by one patron as "a place where good bands go to die." The Station's main attractions consisted of local musicians and tribute/cover bands, with an occasional has-been national act. The Derderians didn't know much about running a club at first, but they apparently learned quickly that the road to rock and roll glory involved screwing local yokel bands, over-selling shows by larger acts, and operating with a flagrant disregard for customer safety on a regular basis. Immediately after the fire, the Derderians and the Great White camp bickered in the media about whether or not the band had been "allowed" by the club's management to use the pyrotechnic device that sparked the blaze. The Derderians stood fast with their assertion that no such permission was ever given, however, a host of previous bands who'd played The Station were quick to point out that they had all been allowed to use pyro on the tiny stage.
In light of the Station Nightclub tragedy, do you still go to see rock shows in small clubs?
The Derderians, however, are not the only villains in this story. The town of West Warwick and its fire inspection officer are also chastised for playing fast-and-loose with the club's "maximum occupancy" number over the years, never following up on violations discovered during fire inspections, and somehow completely missing the cheap polyurethane soundproofing foam - described as "solid gasoline" - that covered the club's walls. We also learn that due to the building's age, it had no fire sprinkler system, because it was built before such measures became required by law for all establishments and therefore was "grandfathered."
Great White's camp fares no better in Barylick's book. Tour manager Dan Biechele (the man who lit the fuse on the fireworks on that fateful night) eventually comes off as the most noble, as he was the only person who fully cooperated with authorities and appeared contrite about his role in the tragedy. Great White vocalist Jack Russell, on the other hand, appears to be a clueless dork who was oblivious to the day-to-day workings of his own band. I've always wondered why Russell (or, for that matter, anybody else in the band) never said to themselves "Hey, you know what? It might not be such a good idea to use fireworks in a little place like this," but if KILLER SHOW is to be believed, Russell didn't worry about little details like that, since he had people on his payroll to worry about them for him. Instead, Russell spent his day in West Warwick prior to the Station gig by reveling in the remnants of his faded celebrity status - hitting the town, schmoozing with motel cleaning ladies, diner waitresses, and local tattoo artists and putting them all on his personal "guest list" for the show that night. Several of Russell's "guests" perished in the ensuing blaze. Towards the end of the book, Russell appears on TV's "Extra" to show off his new $45,000 face lift and later has the balls to tell reporters that he "found the strength to soldier on" after the tragedy through "the love of music," while dozens of his fans who were injured at the Station were still waiting to find out if they'd be compensated for their losses and suffering.
When the smoke cleared...
After a harrowing re-telling of the fire and its immediate aftermath (some of the details in this section are particularly horrific), Barylick covers the ensuing investigation into the cause of the blaze by an armada of forensic scientists, and shares the stories of a number of survivors. In the last quarter of the book he leads the reader through the eventual, massive class-action lawsuit put forth by those survivors and the families of the deceased, which involved dozens of lawyers and a laundry list of defendants, including the band and the Derderians, various foam manufacturers, brewing giant Anheuser-Busch and the Clear Channel radio network (both of whom co-sponsored Great White's gig at The Station). Some of the details of this complicated process seemed a bit heavy on the legal-ese at times for this layman, but Barylick does do his best to explain each step so that the average reader can follow it. By 2008, Barylick and his fellow lawyers had managed to procure settlements of nearly $176 million to be divided amongst the families of the Station fire victims and the surviving patrons who'd suffered grievous injuries on that horrible night.
On a personal note...
Like most rock fans, I was stunned by the events at The Station. During the '80s and '90s I saw shows by hundreds of hard rock and heavy metal bands in dozens of small clubs just like it, and as I watched the horror in Rhode Island unfold on television on a chilly morning in 2003, it occurred to me that it could've happened to me, or to any of my friends, in any nightclub.
It also made me re-think an experience I had in the early 90s when I was watching a KISS tribute band in a small New Jersey club; the band had affixed a number of flash pots to their drum riser and when they were ignited, one of them blew out a number of tiles from the ceiling above the stage. Naturally the show had to be halted while the stage crew came out and cleaned up the mess, and though I thought the whole thing was very funny at the time, in light of the Station tragedy I thought back to that night and shuddered, thinking "Wow, maybe I dodged a bullet."
I was a fan of Great White fan prior to the incident at the Station nightclub. I suppose I still am, but I rarely listen to their music anymore because of the bad memories it brings back. Great White used to be famous; now, unfortunately, they're doomed to be forever infamous.
KILLER SHOW: The Station Nightclub Fire, America's Deadliest Rock Concert is fascinating, horrifying, heartbreaking and infuriating in equal doses, and it should be required reading for fire inspectors and those in the entertainment and public safety industries, as well as rock fans who regularly attend shows in small nightclubs. One hopes that we have all learned valuable lessons from the Station tragedy, and that we will never see anything like it again. Highly recommended.