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Grand jury begins; 4 bodies unknown

©Associated Press
February 27, 2003

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- A grand jury opened an investigation Wednesday into the nightclub inferno that killed 97 people, and members of the heavy metal group whose pyrotechnics are suspected of starting the fire could testify as early as today.

At least two members of the band Great White were seen entering the National Guard training center in East Greenwich where the grand jury met behind closed doors.

Neil Philbin, a lawyer for lead singer Jack Russell, declined to comment.

In nearby Pawtucket, more than 200 grief-stricken friends and relatives said goodbye to victim Dennis Smith, 36, who had gone to the concert at the Station because a friend had an extra ticket.

"May the lives of people like Dennis draw us closer together," said the Rev. John Kiley, the only speaker at the brief service. In West Warwick, about 500 people attended a private Mass for another victim of the blaze, 38-year-old Carlos Pimental.

Flames swept through the West Warwick club Thursday after the band set off a pyrotechnic display during its first song. The band has said it received approval to use special effects, but the two brothers who own the club have denied giving permission.

Legal experts and fire investigators said Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, along with band members, could be indicted on such state charges as involuntary manslaughter or second-degree murder. Federal charges haven't been ruled out.

The Derderians were in the process of selling the business when the fire broke out; just hours before, two men, Michael O'Connor and Daniel Gormley, filed papers with the state forming a company to run it. According to the town clerk, the Derderians were scheduled to come in the next day to begin transferring the liquor license.

The Station was also caught up in the contentious divorce of Michael Derderian, whose finances were becoming increasingly precarious, according to court records. Divorce records show Heather Derderian tried to force her husband to sell the club last year; the records also show his debts, including $28,000 owed to the Internal Revenue Service.

Jeffrey Pine, an attorney for Jeffrey Derderian, said there was no indication the brothers' finances were a focus of the criminal investigation. Michael Derderian's divorce became final Wednesday.

Authorities are still trying to determine whether the club used an inexpensive and highly flammable brand of soundproofing that shouldn't have been installed.

All but four of the 97 bodies pulled from the nightclub's rubble have been identified. Gov. Don Carcieri said he has asked families for any personal items -- such as a hairbrush or toothbrush -- that could provide DNA for medical examiners to use to identify the remaining victims.

"It just is going to take time. It can be days, it can be weeks," said Carcieri, who has met with relatives still waiting for their loved ones to be identified.

"It breaks my heart that I can't give them an answer, but scientifically we're doing everything we can as fast as we can to give them an answer," he said.

More than 180 people were also injured in the fire. About 60 remain hospitalized, including 36 in critical condition.

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