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Band Arrives to Testify on R.I. Club Fire

February 26, 2003

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) _ Grief-stricken friends and relatives said goodbye Wednesday to two men who perished in the Station nightclub fire, while members of the rock band Great White arrived to tell a grand jury their version of how it all began.

More than 200 people crowded into a Pawtucket funeral home to pay tribute to Dennis Smith, 36, who had gone to the nightclub concert 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.

About 500 people showed up in West Warwick for a funeral Mass for Carlos L. Pimental, 38, but the priest said that relatives asked that the media not report any details of the service.

A grand jury was to begin hearing testimony Wednesday into the blaze that killed Smith, Pimental and 95 others at the West Warwick club last week. Surviving members of Great White arrived in the morning at a National Guard training center in East Greenwich, where the grand jury is sitting. The proceedings are closed to the public.

In Pawtucket, mourners cried and hugged each other as they sat before Smith’s closed casket, which was adorned with red and white flowers.

Smith had worked occasional landscaping jobs. After his service, friends recalled him as a practical joker who reveled in making others laugh.

``No matter what kind of mood you are in, Dennis always had a smile and a grin that would make you laugh,″ said a childhood friend, 27-year-old Henri Emery II.

Steven Dame, 26, couldn’t help laughing as he recalled a time when Smith swallowed a cup of hot peppers to win a contest. Though tears were running down his face, his friend said, ``He kept saying, ’They’re good, they’re good.‴

Flames swept through the West Warwick nightclub within minutes late Thursday after the band set off a pyrotechnic display. Great White guitarist Ty Longley was among those killed.

``We’re just devastated by the loss. It’s a devastating situation,″ bass player David Filice said after arriving at the airport in Warwick late Tuesday. He would not comment on the investigation.

An attorney for one of the club’s owners said unspecified documents related to the investigation will be turned over Wednesday to the attorney general’s office.

``I can’t really get into specifics about what’s in these documents, but this is information that we’ve been able to compile that we believe will certainly be of assistance in the investigation,″ former Rhode Island Attorney General Jeffrey Pine, who represents club co-owner Jeffrey Derderian, told The Associated Press.

Also Wednesday, Paul Vanner, the stage manager and sound engineer at The Station, told a news conference that Great White pyrotechnics lasted longer than he was used to seeing from other bands. While most last a second or so in flashing their sparkles across the stage, this show of sparks lasted far longer.

``I’ve never seen it that big and that long. It was about 20 seconds,″ Vanner said.

He said he expressed concerns about the safety of pyrotechnics to club co-owner Michael Derderian, Jeffrey’s brother, about three months ago, and he ``seemed to take it to heart.″

He said he had seen about a dozen shows that used pyrotechnics _ including about eight since he first noticed foam soundproofing added at The Station about 18 months ago.

He said in each of those shows he was forewarned that the special effects would be used. However, he said he was given no advance notice before the Great White show.

Vanner said he has not received a subpoena to testify.

The band has said it received approval to use the special effects, but the owners of the club, the Station, have denied giving permission.

Legal experts and fire investigators said the Derderians and members of the band could be indicted on such state charges as involuntary manslaughter or second-degree murder. And a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Providence says federal charges haven’t been ruled out.

``It is pretty obvious that there was some joint responsibility. Maybe the issue is not which one to charge, but what to charge both with,″ said Donald Bliss, state fire marshal for New Hampshire and the president of the National Association of State Fire Marshals.

Nearly a week after the blaze, recovery teams with search dogs returned to the charred ruins of the nightclub Tuesday to look for bodies that may have been missed. Gov. Don Carcieri said there was a discrepancy between the number of people reported missing and the number of victims found. So far, 93 of the 97 bodies have been identified.

More than 180 people were also injured in the fire; about 60 of them were still in hospitals, including 39 in critical condition.

Attorney General Patrick Lynch has said he does not believe the Derderians have cooperated with investigators, but spokesman Mike Healey said Tuesday, ``We’re not pitting the band against the Derderians.″

The attorney general’s office indicated that Mary Jo Carolan, the president of Triton Limited Realty Partnership, would be subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury, an attorney for the realty group said. Triton leased the nightclub to the Derderians.

Attorney Edward Ryan Jr., who represented a homeless man charged with manslaughter in a 1999 fire that killed six Worcester, Mass., firefighters, said the grand jury could find the club owners and the band committed ``affirmative acts″ that caused the deaths _ the band by using pyrotechnics without a permit, and the Derderians by failing to make sure no fire hazards were present.

Ryan cited reports that pyrotechnics had been used in the club by other bands.

``If they had 70 shows in the last three years and 35 of those involved pyrotechnics of some sort, that leads to a fair inference that they knew of or should have known what was going on in their club,″ Ryan said.

``But clearly, whoever set up that display _ the band _ is a potential target, whether they had permission or not.″

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