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Investigators probe club's soundproofing material

©Associated Press
February 25, 2003

WEST WARWICK, R.I. -- Investigators are trying to determine whether the soundproofing material that burst into flames at the Station nightclub and led to the deaths of 97 people Thursday was a highly flammable type that shouldn't have been installed.

State law bars flammable acoustic material like polyurethane foam from the walls of gathering spaces like bars.

"If it was (polyurethane), then the governor's going want an answer to the question, "Why was it there?' " said Jeff Neal, spokesman for Gov. Don Carcieri.

The state has started a criminal investigation into the fire, which injured 180 people.

The fire began during the first song of the night by the '80s band Great White. Fireworks apparently set fire to soundproofing behind and above the stage, sending flames roaring through the club in a matter of minutes.

Great White has said it had permission to use the special effects, a claim disputed by the club's owners.

Soundproofing experts who have seen video of the disaster say they believe the material used at the Station was polyurethane foam, a commonly used, inexpensive alternative to fire-resistant panels many experts prefer.

"It's a common mistake many people make, not evaluating their materials," said P.J. Nash, a national soundproofing distributor in San Diego. "Polyurethane foam is extremely flammable, and if you breathe that smoke, it's going to knock you out in a minute."

A polyurethane panel typically costs about $150 while a melamine panel, which experts say withstands heat, sells for nearly $250.

The club passed a fire inspection Dec. 31, but it wasn't clear if the soundproofing material was checked or would normally be during a routine inspection. Fire Chief Charles Hall declined comment on the investigation.

The governor has declared a moratorium on fireworks displays at venues that hold fewer than 300 people. Deputy fire marshals began sweeping through Rhode Island clubs Monday, looking for fire hazards.

At a news conference Monday, Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch said investigators need greater cooperation from the brothers who owned the Station, Michael and Jeffrey Derderian.

"I believe the Derderians might be able to provide some answers that may assist all of us," Lynch said.

Jeffrey Derderian, who was at the Station on the night of the fire, has spoken publicly about the disaster and answered a few questions from investigators at the scene of the fire Thursday night, but not since then. Michael Derderian, who was not at the club that night, has not spoken about it in public or, Lynch said, to investigators.

Law enforcement officials said that they had obtained a warrant to search Great White's bus and that members of the band, which left to return to California over the weekend, were cooperating.

Carcieri said 13 more victims have been identified, bringing the total to 55. About 80 survivors remain hospitalized; about half were in critical condition. The governor also asked President Bush to declare the fire a state disaster, which would make Rhode Island eligible for federal aid.

Meanwhile, thousands of relatives and friends of the victims joined in a pair of memorials Monday and pledged to see each other through the disaster.

"It's so sad, but so nice to see all these people come together," said Kim Ondrick, who attended a vigil at the West Warwick Civic Center with her friend, Sherry Lariviere.

At a service at St. Gregory the Great Church in nearby Warwick, about 400 mourners sang hymns and prayed for victims. One pastor asked grieving families to hold up pictures of their lost relatives so mourners can "know for a moment those you loved."

"It's true that some good may come from this disaster, but the event itself is only tragic and will never make sense," said the Rev. John Holt of the Rhode Island Council of Churches.

-- Information from the New York Times was used in this report.

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