Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Killer Show: The Station Nightclub Fire

On the day after The Station nightclub fire, in February 2003, I was having lunch with my brother and his then-five year old daughter.  Caroline kept turning to a TV mounted over the bar, trying to figure out just what was happening on the news. The film was riveting, no more so than for an inquisitive five year old. There was no distracting her from it. She wanted to know just what was going on.

The what was actually pretty easy to explain (however unpleasant the task, especially when you’re explaining it to an exceedingly inquisitive, exceedingly worry-wart kindergartner): a lot of people were killed in a nightclub fire.

Although we didn’t know it at the time, the why turned out to be pretty straightforward, too: a perfect storm of compounding careless and/or thoughtless and/or feckless and/or greedy decisions about safety that ended up with one hundred (mostly young) people meeting hideous and completely avoidable deaths, and a few hundred more survivors, a number of whom suffered dreadful, disabling, disfiguring injuries.

Anyway, John Barylick, has deftly pulled together the story of what happened and why in Killer Show: The Station Nightclub Fire, America’s Deadliest Rock Concert, which was published last month.

Barylick* is uniquely positioned to get the story. He’s a trial attorney whose firm represented a number of the victims.And his was one of eight Rhode Island law firms that banded together to form a Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee, pooling resources to develop strategies and conduct their investigations before any lawsuits were filed. However up close and personal Barylick was to the material, the book didn’t write itself. It’s the result of years of meticulous research and a painstaking effort to get things right – without any sensationalizing of what could so easily have been sensationalized, and without any exploitation of victim stories that could so easily have been exploited.

For those who don’t recall the details, the heavy metal band White Shark – a second (maybe third) tier group that had met with some modest success during the 1980’s – was performing at The Station, a rundown nightclub in the rundown town of West Warwick, RI. The band’s performance included “pyro”, i.e., setting off fireworks. At The Station, the fireworks ignited highly flammable insulation that had been slapped up to keep the neighbors from complaining about the noise. The audience was well over any reasonable capacity for the venue, people were drinking, an exit was blocked, panic – not surprisingly – took hold. And 100 people – mostly working-class locals who’d been Great White fans during the band’s brief glory day – were killed: burned, trampled, asphyxiated.

Without slipping into the always dangerous cliché zone, Killer Show is, indeed a page turner.

I was especially taken with Barylick’s ability to capture the setting: Working class town straight out of a Springsteen song. The none-too-clean, completely charmless nightclub, with its torn naugahyde, Bud banners, cigarette scars – and totally lacking the cachet of a “dive bar” that might have been frequented by Brown, RISD, or Providence College students slumming. Nope. The Station was for people who couldn’t afford much else.

Those with options, folks who don’t think twice before  plunking down fourteen bucks for a fancy martini, don’t frequent joints like Station. (A telling detail: the door to the men’s room had been destroyed and never replaced.) The place was a dump – a dump where the owners, eager to wring out every dime they could – cheaped out on safety.

And I was also taken with those whose story Killer Show is. Each time Barylick introduced someone who’d been there that night – each time with just enough detail to get a sense of who they were, to fall “in like” with them  - I had to know right away whether they made it. So I kept my thumb in the page toward the back that listed those who had died. With each new name, I immediately had to check and see whether they made it out alive.  Yes! I’m so relieved that the couple with five kids both survived. Oh, no! The bartender studying to be a paralegal didn’t.

Killer Show doesn’t read like a novel. None one of the “characters” are completely drawn, or fully realized.

Yet even with the thumbnails we’re given, Barylick gives us a good sense of who’s who.

We recognize the “power mouse” swagger of the bar’s hangers-on who got tee-shirts and a beer or two in exchange for guarding the band-only exit, and feel them flexing that little-man mouse-power to turn back patrons fleeing the fire.

We ache for the young women with the tough and dead end jobs, cleaners at the hotel where the band stayed, who were so thrilled to get on the comp list for the show.

We learn enough about Dan Biechele, the Great White tour manager who set off the pyro, to know that he is a man with integrity and decency at his core. (Now there’s a novel in the waiting…)

And enough about The Brothers Derderian, who owned The Station, to understand just how pathetically limited, weak, and shallow they are.

There were sections of the book that I found slow-going – the descriptions of burns and burn treatment, the section on the legal issues – and would have preferred in shorter version (with the full information covered in appendices which appendix-reading me would have read). That said, the material in these sections was both interesting and important. I especially liked reading about the decision to sue entities (Bud, Clear Channel radio) that had no direct responsibility for the fire.

But these sections did bog me down a bit and got in the way of the story’s flow.

On the other hand, I would have liked to have “seen” more of the deliberations around the disposition of the settlement fund. (Perhaps there were too many confidentiality issues here.) And an update on the survivors. (Maybe that’s another book entirely.)

We’re coming up on the 70th anniversary of Boston’s Coconut Grove Nightclub fire, in which nearly 500 perished.

You’d have thought that, 60 years on, by the time of The Station fire, we would know everything we need to know – and act on everything we need to act on – with respect to safety in large, crowded venues.

Apparently not.

The collective settlement pot for The Station was $176M.

Sounds like a lot, until you remember that one hundred people died (leaving dozens of small children behind), and plenty more people suffered grievous injuries that will keep them in pain for the rest of their lives.

(Reminder:  sometimes there are real people who get really hurt because someone did something marginally rotten or just plain stupid that turned into something really bad. Torts are not always about someone looking for a million dollars for a botched BMW paint job or dry cleaning damage to the favorite sport coat.)

Killer Show is a cautionary tale, and should be required reading for every fire marshal, building inspector, bar owner, pyro-loving band member, liquor distributor running promos, and every free-market worshipping regulation hater and/or those who maintain that lawyers are ruining the country. And for everyone in a position to make a stand-alone poor decision that has anything to do with safety. A decision that, when combined with a series of other stand-alone poor decisions, can result in a truly terrible outcome.

The human element being the human element, we’ll never be able to prevent every catastrophe from occurring. But The Station fire was so stunningly avoidable…

In Killer Show, John Barylick carefully, with tremendous craft, and tremendous sympathy for the victims, lays it all out for us.





*He’s also the husband of an old and dear friend of mine from Worcester


Anonymous said...

Fantastic review. I want to read this book, but after what I've seen and read so far online, I'm not sure I want any more details in my mind about this senseless, horrific and totally avoidable tragedy. Great review though!

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to point out that the band was "Great White" not "White Shark".

Maureen Rogers said...

Anonymous - thanks for the correction.

Maureen Rogers said...

Thanks for the correction.