Question: Why did you decide to write “Killer Show”?
John Barylick: My need to write about the fire, and its human and legal aftermath, became apparent when the resulting criminal and civil actions resolved without trials, leaving the public clamoring for “answers.” I knew that most of the answers were contained in public records; however, the sheer volume of those records made marshaling the evidence daunting for any but the most committed researcher. To use an unfortunate phrase in the context of this case, making sense of it all was like trying to drink from a fire hose. Having worked on the legal aspects of the case, I had a framework for organizing that surfeit of information into a comprehensible work. At least, that was my objective.
Q: You are not a writer by trade, yet the book is very well written. Have you had any formal training as a writer?
JB: Most lawyers are writers of a sort. They’re trained to lay out persuasive arguments on paper. Unfortunately, legal writing is often stultifying – just a cold recitation of the facts and law. My first cut at chapter 1 of KILLER SHOW was just that, and it was beyond terrible. A writer friend kindly clued me in to the mantra of narrative writers everywhere: “More show, less tell”. That became my goal as I strove to put my reader into the scene, whether that was inside the burning Station nightclub or at counsel table in a courtroom.
Q: Do you consider yourself a music fan? If so, does your taste run towards rock, hard rock or heavy metal music? Did your opinion of this type of music change—for better or for worse–because of the Station nightclub fire?
JB: I’m both a music fan and a performer, from playing drums in high school garage bands to singing in classical and pop groups as an adult. My musical tastes are pretty wide-ranging – from hard rock, to classical, to country. Work on the Station Fire case and KILLER SHOW heightened my personal awareness of the responsibility that performers have to ensure their audiences’ safety, regardless of the musical genre. Irresponsible use of pyrotechnics, overcrowding, blocking of exits – all are inexcusable perils to which no concertgoer should be exposed.
Q: Because the fire took place in a small town in a small state, it seems like everyone in and around RI knew someone who was either at the Station or someone who knew someone who was there. You’ve lived in Rhode Island for 35 years. Did you know anyone directly touched by the fire before you took on the case?
JB: The cliché about Rhode Island’s provincialism is that its citizens enjoy “two degrees of separation.” I didn’t directly know any victim of the fire, but I knew several people who did. Directly or indirectly, every citizen of the state was touched by this tragedy.
Q: How many people were in the Station the night of the fire and how many did not make it out?
JB: The most reliable estimate, made by the Providence Journal based upon police reports, legal filings, and interviews with survivors, is that 462 people were crowded into the club when fire erupted. Ninety-six never escaped the building. Another four died from their injuries in the days and weeks thereafter.
Q: Your subtitle refers to the Station fire as America’s deadliest rock concert. Have there been many other deadly rock concerts and/or other tragic nightclub fires in the US and abroad?
JB: Leading the list of American rock concert tragedies before the Station Fire were The Who concert in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1979 (11 persons crushed by crowd) and The Rolling Stones’ Altamont, California concert in 1969 (4 deaths from homicide, drowning and car-pedestrian collisions). The country’s worst nightclub fire, of course, occurred at Boston’s Cocoanut Grove in 1942 (492 fatalities).
Since the Station Fire, pyrotechnic-sparked fires in several foreign dance clubs resulted in loss of life: Argentina in 2005 (175 dead), Bangkok in 2009 (61 dead), and Russia the same year (109 dead).
Q: The average person probably wonders why so many people were caught in the fire—“when they saw the flames why didn’t they simply run away?” What was the general reaction to the fire in the club and how quickly did the fire spread to reach such deadly proportions?
JB: Patrons of The Station lost valuable seconds because many simply did not appreciate the seriousness, or the immediacy, of their peril. Some briefly thought that flames were part of Great White’s pyrotechnics show. Once conscious of their peril, however, most sought to escape by the main door they had come in through. Others were denied egress through a separate exit by club bouncers. Once people fell and jammed in the club’s main entrance, the fate of all behind them was sealed.
The speed and ferocity of the fire were the result of its primary fuel – flammable plastic foam which had been applied to the club’s west wall and ceiling as sound insulation. Any concertgoer who had not exited the club within 90 seconds after flames first erupted had little chance of escape without grievous injury.
Q: There is some very candid and disturbing video footage of the fire that has aired on television and is still all over the internet, almost ten years after the fire. Where did that video footage come from?
JB: By bizarre coincidence, one of The Station’s owners was also employed as a reporter for a local TV station. He wanted to film a piece on, of all things, nightclub safety, so he arranged for a videographer from his station to film generic club scenes at The Station on the night of the Great White concert. That footage, which remains the copyrighted property of the TV station, provided an unflinching real-time record of the fire’s ignition and horrific aftermath.
Q: The book is extremely compelling, but the very nature of the tragedy—a horrible fire—can make it pretty shocking and upsetting at times. You go into significant detail about the science and medicine of burns and burn victims. Did your research into this area cause you to develop a greater appreciation for the doctors and the victims who deal with major burns?
JB: I had represented seriously burned accident victims in my prior law practice, so I understood the destructive and disfiguring power of fire. In that representation and through my work on the Station Fire cases I came to develop a profound respect for burn victims and the dedicated health care professionals who treat them. Like it or not, physical appearance is important in any society. The courage shown by Station Fire victims in coping with disability and disfigurement is at once impressive and humbling.
Q: I’m sure there were many, many deaths that could of have been prevented, even as the fire was raging, but were there some instances of tragedy piled upon tragedy as victims struggled to get out? Were there some people who really should have gotten out but didn’t?
JB: Several concertgoers attempted to exit by the door nearest the stage, but were turned away by club bouncers who declared that the exit was for “band only.” Those bouncers’ ignorance or obstinance cost multiple lives. Truly, all loss of life could have been prevented if illegal pyrotechnics had not been used, if the club had not been overcrowded, or if flammable packing foam had not been applied to the walls. The band door fiasco was only the most egregious example of avoidable deaths.
Q: What was the most incredible survival story to emerge from the Station Fire?
JB: One club patron was extracted, uninjured, from under a stack of unrecognizably burned victims almost an hour after the fire began. To the amazement of firefighters, this man had been wedged against the floor just inside the front entrance with a plume of breathable air passing by him.
Q: This was a complex case and full of emotion on so many different levels. What made you as a lawyer want to take on this case? Have you ever been involved in a case that was anything like this before and would you ever want to be involved in one again?
JB: The civil cases arising from the Station Fire consumed me professionally for seven years, to the exclusion of most other work. Given the scope of this tragedy, it was inevitable that my firm would wield a laboring oar. The complexity and emotional cost of this litigation were unprecedented for me, and for Rhode Island. While it was ultimately satisfying to obtain compensation for the fire’s victims, I would hope that no similar tragedy would ever befall this or any other state.
Q: The pressing of civil claims against persons and corporations responsible for the Station fire was not resolved until 7 years after the event. How long were you involved in the case and roughly how many hours do you think you put into the case?
JB: During those seven years, our law firm expended in excess of ten thousand attorney and paralegal hours on litigation in state court, federal court, probate courts and even bankruptcy court. We were one of eight law firms doing similar work for the Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee.
Q: The end result of the court cases was a settlement for 176 million dollars. Who paid this money and how was it allocated among the victims?
JB: Twenty-seven individuals and corporate defendant groups contributed to the total settlement fund of $176 million, with the largest single contributor paying $30 million. The balance of the fund after legal expenses was distributed to persons injured in the fire and to the families of persons killed in the fire, pursuant to an allocation plan created by a special master appointed by the federal court.
Q: How many of the 400+ people who were at the Station the night of the fire did you and the other members of the legal “steering committee” end up representing?
JB: Members of the Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee, consisting of eight law firms, represented over 90% of the fire’s death and injury cases. 97 families of deceased victims filed suit, as did over 200 injured victims. Approval of the final settlement with all defendants, as well as the allocation plan for distribution of the proceeds, was eventually given by all plaintiffs after months of meetings to obtain their input and explain the law of tort damages to them.
Q: What was the most difficult part of this case both from a legal standpoint and from the perspective of a human being?
JB: The most difficult legal problem with the case was the fact that the most obviously culpable defendants – the band and club owners – were what we call “judgment-proof”. That is, they had minimal assets with which to satisfy a legal judgment against them. This necessitated that we pursue difficult theories of liability against more peripheral defendants such as materials manufacturers and promoters whose negligence contributed much more indirectly to the tragedy.
As a human being attempting to help the victims over seven years, the most difficult part was the sheer scale of the suffering. No amount of money can make victims or their families whole after such an event, but their stories of courage, and even heroism, made the task easier.
Q: What are the most important lessons you’ve learned from this case both as a lawyer and as a person?
JB: As a lawyer, I learned that despite inordinately complex legal issues and disparate individual interests, many attorneys and hundreds of clients can work together to achieve a common goal. The process is not without its risks and periods of despair, but it is possible to succeed at it.
As a person, work on the case and research on KILLER SHOW reinforced to me how seemingly minor decisions made for convenience and profit can have tragic consequences. The Station Fire was the result of petty economic decisions made by a band, club owners, promoters and manufacturers, which decisions combined to create a fatal critical mass. Just one responsible actor, valuing safety over profits, could have avoided the tragedy.
Q: “Killer Show” can easily be read as a cautionary tale for anyone who ever goes into a small club or even a restaurant. Do you now think twice about going into these types of buildings?
JB: A few months after the Station Fire, I found myself in a club in Oregon, wedged among several hundred patrons, without an exit in sight. I thought, “It took me 10 minutes just to work through the crowd to where I am. What if everyone had to escape?” I immediately turned and made my way out. Since then, I won’t even enter a crowded club or restaurant unless the way out is clear. Before any show starts, I share an emergency exit plan with my party. We identify the closest exits and agree to leave without delay at the first sign of trouble.
Q: Looking back with 20/20 hindsight, what in your opinion are a few of the simplest things that could’ve been done to avoid this tragedy?
JB: The list is short and pretty uncomplicated: Don’t use illegal pyrotechnics unsuited to an indoor venue. Don’t put flammable foam on its walls. Insist on proper enforcement of local fire codes pertaining to exits, wall coverings and occupancy. Install sprinklers in places of public assembly. Generally, consider the safety implications of every business decision, however small.
Q: Do you think this horrible tragedy will result in any lasting changes to the general way bands, music venues and other nightclubs operate?
JB: The Station Fire resulted in stricter fire codes and better enforcement in Rhode Island and several other states. I know from speaking with club operators that indoor pyro will never again be tolerated in their venues. Hopefully, bands, too, will consider audience safety to be part of their responsibility and neither engage in, nor tolerate, dangerous activities.
Q: What has happened to the defendants in this case such as Great White and the Derderian brothers?
JB: The road manager for Great White, Dan Biechele, served 16 months in prison after pleading guilty to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter. One of the club-owning brothers, Michael Derderian, served 27 months in prison after pleading nolo contendere to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter. The other owner, Jeffrey Derderian, entered a similar plea; however, his entire ten-year jail sentence was suspended. He served no jail time. Neither Great White front man Jack Russell, nor the West Warwick fire marshal, Denis Larocque, was charged with any crime.
Q: What now occupies the lot where the Station once stood?
JB: Almost ten years after the fire, the site of the Station nightclub consists of a paved parking area and a weedy lot on which stand 100 makeshift memorials to the persons killed there. No formal, permanent memorial has been possible because the owner of the property, the club’s landlord, has been unwilling to deed it to a non-profit memorial foundation. It’s a mystery to me why the landlord refuses to do so. Surely, he can’t believe that Rhode Islanders will ever accept another retail business on this emotionally sensitive location – but one never knows, when it comes to profit motive.
Q: What do you most want readers to take away from this book?
JB: I hope that readers consider anew the potential for tragedy when we cut corners in business, or even our own personal lives, for the sake of profit or convenience. Putting profits over safety must never be acceptable. Just one person doing the right thing – making the right decision – can make all the difference.