R.I. Victims Seek Relief

Who will pay for the Great White disaster?

The first federal lawsuit to result from February's fire at the Great White show in West Warwick, Rhode Island, was filed yesterday in U.S. District Court in Providence. The suit names as defendants Great White, the band's management and label Knight Records, the Station nightclub owners Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, pyrotechnics manufacturer Luna Tech, foam manufacturer American Foam, the town of West Warwick, the state of Rhode Island, and the concert's sponsors Clear Channel Entertainment and Anheuser-Busch.

Attorney Ronald Resmini filed the suit on behalf of three plaintiffs: two survivors of the fire -- one who suffered burns and one who suffered inhalation injuries -- and the family of one of the ninety-nine who died after Great White's pyrotechnics ignited a fire that razed the nightclub. He estimates the value of the death claim at between $1 and $3 million dollars; the burn claim at between $750,000 and $1.5 million; and the inhalation claim at between $600,000 and $1.2 million. Those numbers, compounded by the fact that there were over 200 victims killed or injured in the fire, explain the complexity and the scope of the lawsuit: Clear Channel and Anheuser-Busch, also named in the dozen or so state-level civil suits, could be the only defendants with the financial wherewithal to pay judgements.

"Rhode Island has what's known as 'joint-several liability,'" Resmini explains. "If a defendant is found even one percent liable, they are responsible for paying 100 percent of the amount of the claim." Resmini maintains that Anheuser-Busch and Clear Channel are liable because they were sponsors of the Station's Great White show, contributing to the overcrowding that resulted in clogged and blocked exits as people tried to escape the fire. Clear Channel owns Providence rock radio station WHJY, which promoted the concert; its DJ Michael Gonsalves was on location at the club and died in the fire. Anheuser-Busch also had an employee on site, running a promotion for a special batch of Bud.

Resmini isn't following a particular precedent in going after the concert's sponsors but maintains he's on solid legal ground. "It's a common sense negligence issue," he says. "When you put an agent on the property to promote a product, you have a responsibility to make sure it is done safely." He adds that Anheuser-Busch's obligation is compounded by the fact that alcohol impairs judgement and slows response time, both of which could have hindered club-goers' ability to react to and escape from the blaze.

Lawsuits like the one Resmini is heading could be the only recourse for victims of the fire and their families. A Station Nightclub Fire Relief Fund, administered by the United Way, has collected about $2 million to put toward victims' hospital bills, which are ultimately expected to exceed $100 million. It will probably fall to Rhode Island taxpayers to cover the difference. President Bush turned down Governor Donald Carcieri's request for federal disaster assistance, even though the catastrophe killed more Americans than enemy fire in Iraq.

Neither has a major benefit for the victims yet taken shape. An April 11th charity show at Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel in Providence that featured Van Halen, Aerosmith, the Who and Jimi Hendrix tribute bands raised $10,000. And Great White have only committed to play one song at an April 29th benefit in Los Angeles for the family of their guitarist Ty Longely, who died in the fire. The band is denying rumors of an upcoming tour, though singer Jack Russell has sounded out at least one former member of the band about the project.

The lack of ready assistance and relief has left survivors feeling forgotten and angry -- angry at politicians in Washington and Rhode Island, and angry at the music industry, which has been strangely silent. "I get a message from the government and the entertainment industry and that is, if you don't have money, your value as a person is less," says Neil Burns, singer for Aerosmith cover band Draw the Line, who played at the April 11th benefit. "'It was just a club, some blue-collar people going to see some blue-collar music.'"

Some displeasure has also been directed at Great White. "It was god-awful of them to leave right after the fire," says Julie Mellini, a former Station bartender whose friend Linda Fisher sustained burns over forty percent of her body and spent excruciating weeks in intensive care. "They could've visited some of the burn victims, if they really gave a shit. They've had the opportunity to go back to Los Angeles and evade everything."

Says Joe Bevilacqua, programming director at WHJY, "If Great White toured, the reaction here would be very negative. I'm not playing Great White music on the radio anymore, out of respect for those who died."