Litigation arises from profound and unforgettable tragedies that leave victims irreparably scarred and families deprived of loved ones. While justice may seem fleeting for those who have suffered, there are remarkable stories that emerge, testifying to human spirit and resilience.
That is one of the central themes of author-attorney John Barylick’s work representing victims and families of the scores of people killed and injured in one of the country’s worst modern tragedies.
Barylick recalls that work in his book, “Killer Show: The Station Nightclub Fire,” chronicling the legal fallout following the fourth-largest nightclub fire in U.S. history, Feb. 20, 2003, at the Station Nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island. One hundred people were killed and 230 more injured after illegal pyrotechnics ignited a disastrous blaze during a performance by the band Great White.
Barylick, a civil litigator in Providence, Rhode Island since 1977, is attorney/of counsel at Foley Cerilli. He will discuss legal aspects of the tragedy during a Dec. 6 Leaders in Law lecture at the American Museum of Tort Law in Winsted.
As lead attorney for many of the resulting plaintiffs, Barylick helped families collect more than $176 million in settlements, but he said that is not adequate compensation considering the extent of the tragedy. One of the central questions remaining in the case surrounds the culpability of the local fire inspector, who was never charged for negligence or held liable in the aftermath of the tragedy.
Barylick said it remains a wonder why the fire inspector, who failed to point out flammable foam ceiling tiles, was not charged in the case. But he noted that his talks are received well by firefighters and other first responders.
“While this presentation will be before an audience of legal types, there will also be fire service professionals,” the attorney said. “When I talk about the event in the book, I try to key it toward the audience in the time available, and I decided to tailor the substance of this presentation to fire professionals.”
While Barylick has his personal feelings about who should have been held accountable, “no one is defensive about it,” he said. “In fact, they applaud. Everyone is interested in improving behaviors related to fire safety. I make them aware of the peculiar job they have. I point out to them that they do have a very important and unusual job, which, if they do really well, and they avoid the next Station Nightclub fire, they’ll never know it—and if they don’t, they’ll never be able to forget it.”
Barylick called the results of criminal prosecutions in the Station Fire case “modest,” with Great White’s tour manager, Dan Biechele, who set off illegal fireworks at the show, receiving a four-year sentence, of which he served less than two. Station Nightclub owner Michael Derderian served less than three years of a five-year prison sentence after pleading no contest to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter. His co-owner and brother, Jeffrey Derderian, avoided prison.
Echoing the sentiments of many victims, Barylick said it’s still surprising that Great White lead singer Jack Russell was never criminally prosecuted in the case. Russell, who was considered the band’s primary decision maker, remains a pariah among East Warwick residents, who rejected an offer of proceeds from an intended charity concert dedicated to victims and families.
Barylick represented more than 50 families of people who were killed or injured in the fire, and he said the stories they tell have been gruesome and life changing. He estimated that the liability should have risen into the “multiple of millions” per victim. The problem was the defendants had no assets. “We were pressed into developing other theories,” he said.
Considering that the band and nightclub were essentially penniless, and the band’s insurance policy maxed out at $1 million, that meant naming other defendants—including the town of Warwick; the State of Rhode Island and businesses including the Sealed Air Corporation, which made flammable ceiling-tile foam that quickly combusted in the fire; and a local television station, whose camera operator was accused of obstructing an exit. Under the circumstances, amassing $176 million in settlements was considered a success.
“If you’re a fan of plaintiffs’ practice, you may find it interesting and positive,” Barylick acknowledged. “But if you’re steeped in the insurance mindset, perhaps not so much.”
As has been written in many articles in the 15-plus years since the tragedy, singer Jack Russell is a figure that remains tainted, for having had at least knowledge of the illegal pyrotechnics prior to their use. The band had used them at several shows prior to the East Warwick concert, so it would have been impossible for him not to know about them. Barylick said the fire could have happened at any of the previous nightclubs on the tour, because the band was following the same routine.
“I don’t feel that Jack Russell has personally owned this tragedy,” Barylick said. “He still speaks of it as something that passively happened to him and not a tragedy in which he was a prime actor.”
Meanwhile, the attorney added, prior acts at the Station had also used pyrotechnics. “This was not a surprise or something that was not tolerated. It was something tolerated, if not encouraged.” In that sense, Barylick said, it was an accident waiting to happen.
In addition to getting to know a great deal about Russell, Barylick has become intimately involved with the details of lives of many victims and family members. “It was both upsetting and, in many cases, inspiring,” the attorney said. “Some of the worst injured survivors remain as exemplars of preternatural courage.” One surviving victim who has undergone several reconstructive face surgeries stands out as an inspiration. “I came to learn that how someone comes out of an incident like this doesn’t necessarily correspond to how badly they’re physically injured. For some people this absolutely shaped the rest of their lives, and others have been able to positively move on and use it as an example, and really lead impressive lives thereafter.”
For an analysis of the details, it’s best to pick up a copy of “Killer Show,” which got its name from an interview Jack Russell did prior to the concert, in which he said “It’s going to be a killer show.” For more inside information and lessons on how to avoid similar tragedies, a trip to Barylick’s talk in Winsted would be in order, as he’ll reflect on the legal saga took up seven years of his life.
“While we wish we could have gotten more for the families, we were proud of what we did with the available resources,” Barylick said. “To put it bluntly, if this had happened at a Rolling Stones concert at Madison Square Garden, this wouldn’t have lasted seven years, and we would have recovered more for the families.”
John Barylick will appear Thursday, Dec. 6, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at The American Museum of Tort Law in Winsted.