Journalist James, the author of two novels under the pen name Kemble Scott, makes his nonfiction debut with this gripping, meticulously researched account of the 2003 Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, R.I., that killed 100 people. On February 20, 2003, pyrotechnics used by the band Great White ignited the walls and ceiling of the Station nightclub, and flammable acoustical foam spread the fire within minutes. In the aftermath, the public was incensed by the loss of life and furious that only three people were indicted. The Station’s owners, brothers Michael and Jeffrey Derderian, and band tour manager Daniel Biechele all made plea deals and received short sentences. Michael served four years in prison, Jeffrey had his sentence suspended, and Biechele served less than four years. But plenty of others shared the blame, notes James, including the fire marshal who certified the building as safe and the manufacturer of the acoustical foam. The only solace for many of the survivors would come from civil suits that were settled by the companies involved for tens of millions of dollars. James draws on his knowledge of the state’s politics and interviews with the principal players to present a complete, affecting picture of the tragedy’s terrible human cost. This is essential reading for true crime fans. Agent: Michael Carlisle, Inkwell Management. (Oct.)
“Scott James examines the harrowing incident by talking to those who were there and directly impacted—augmented with previously unseen documentation that really puts the tragedy into perspective 15 years later.”—David Chiu, Forbes
“Everything you thought you knew about the [Station nightclub] fire is probably wrong….Trial By Fire details the many misconceptions about the blaze….This is not a book simply about uncovering truths. This is about the people whose lives were changed forever by the blaze.”—Mike Kirby, The Sun Chronicle (Attleboro, MA)
"The author’s account is minutely detailed, its technical discussions punctuated by human-interest-story portraits of the victims...An unsettling history of horrific events whose memory is still fresh." —Kirkus Reviews
"James draws on his knowledge of the state’s politics and interviews with the principal players to present a complete, affecting picture of the tragedy’s terrible human cost. This is essential reading for true crime fans." —Publisher's Weekly
"Well-researched and well written... it is well worth reading for true crime fans who are tired of serial killers." —Booklist
“Another example of how investigative reporting can upend official truths.”—Berkeleyside (CA)
"When Scott James tells the tragedy of The Station nightclub fire, he does for Rhode Island what Truman Capote did for Kansas. With new evidence and interviews, he traces the horror that left 100 dead and hundreds more scarred for life, and in James’ new investigation, none are spared. From the judicial system to the media to the club owners and vendors, each is subjected to a reporter’s skepticism, and an insider’s unflinching compassion. This is journalism as it is meant to be." —Raj Patel, New York Times bestselling author of The Value of Nothing
“Trial by Fire sucks you in faster than flames racing across an oil-based ceiling before pulling you into the wrangling and untangling of the aftermath. Scott James’ investigative journalism reads like an Agatha Christie whodunit.” —Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Alex Storozynski, author of The Peasant Prince
“Trial by Fire is an incredible work of investigative writing and storytelling that thankfully never loses sight of the people at the heart of this awful tragedy. This is a story of community, of those that existed prior to the horrific events at The Station Nightclub and those that were born out of it. James brings the proper amount of compassion, skepticism and nuance to construct a narrative that is as engaging as it is, at times, alarming.” —Academy Award winning filmmaker Daniel Lindsay, for best documentary “Undefeated.”
In 2003 the Station nightclub, in West Warwick, RI, went up in flames during a concert by the heavy metal group Great White. Illegal pyrotechnics, improper flammable insulation, and high attendance resulted in tragedy, killing 100 and injuring more than 200. For journalist and novelist James (The Sower), everyone is a victim—including club owners Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, who served less than three years in prison after a plea agreement to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter. The author, a friend and former colleague of Jeffrey Derderian, offers a compelling account of those who survived with horrific injuries, the anguish suffered by the families of the dead, and the impact on the prosecuted parties. VERDICT While James makes incisive points about the media, faulty fire codes, ambitious prosecutors, and sloppy commercial practice, his book is more defense brief than balanced recounting. To get the other side of the story, readers should turn first to John Barylick's Killer Show, an attorney who represented victims in wrongful death and personal injury suits related to the fire.—Harry Charles, St. Louis
Exposition of a tangled tragedy about which it took “years before anyone knew what really happened—and who was truly to blame.”
It all happened in 90 seconds: a 2003 conflagration in a Rhode Island nightclub that killed 100 people and badly injured many more and that stands today, James notes, as “the nation’s deadliest rock concert.” Name a cause, though, and you enter Rashomon territory, with many contributing factors, ranging from a local culture in which “it was a badge of honor to figure out how to manipulate the system to one’s advantage” to the installation of improper building materials and perhaps willful violations of building codes. Two brothers owned The Station nightclub but were preparing to sell it when the band Great White played there. When the band’s road manager set off a pyrotechnic display, a foam-clad wall caught fire, and within that short span of time, nearly everyone who had been inside had died or been severely injured. The author’s account is minutely detailed, its technical discussions punctuated by human-interest-story portraits of the victims; it is often repetitive, sometimes to emphasize a point, sometimes seemingly carelessly. What emerges from the story is a blend of cascading effects and unintended consequences: The flammable foam had been installed in an effort to deal with neighbors’ complaints about noise, for instance, and the nightclub had no sprinkler system—though sprinklers weren’t required by code and the “deadly danger was never noticed” during multiple fire inspections. Considering James’ exhaustive examination of the facts and the back-and-forth argumentation regarding fault, it is surprising that the legal consequences were not more severe—the fire inspector, for example, received a raise from the town and then retired early on disability—or more broadly distributed.
An unsettling history of horrific events whose memory is still fresh.