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Rhode Island nightclub fire

Relatives Of Station Fire Victims Tell Their Stories

May 8, 2006
PROVIDENCE - Relatives of people who were killed in The Station nightclub fire spoke of their pain as a three-day sentencing hearing began Monday for the former band manager who set off a pyrotechnics display that sparked the inferno. "This is not about forgiveness," said Suzanne Fox, who lost her son, Jeff Martin, in the fire. "Make no mistake, there is not a shred of forgiveness in my heart, and I suspect there never will be. I miss my son more than I ever could have imagined."

With boxes of tissues spread through the courtroom, members of 21 families spoke of how they have suffered sleeplessness, depression and a sense of emptiness in the three years since the tragedy.

Daniel Biechele, 29, pleaded guilty in February to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter. Under the plea deal, he could be sentenced to serve no more than 10 years in prison. His lawyers have asked for community service.

"Our lives were filled with joy and light -- and the light stopped and the joy disappeared with Mark's death," said Rosanna Fontaine, whose son, 22-year-old Mark Fontaine, perished in the fire.

Relatives of those who died were given five minutes each to explain how the fire affected them. Some described the pain of knowing their loved ones' bodies were burned beyond recognition. Others said they keep thinking of their relatives' last panicked moments as many rushed to the front door -- only to be stopped by deadly fumes or the logjam of fellow concertgoers.

One man described the end to a family name with the death of an only son.

"Your honor, there is nothing more painful in life than to bury your son," said William C. Bonardi, whose 36-year-old son, William C. Bonardi III, was among those killed in the Feb. 20, 2003, fire at the West Warwick club.

"In losing our only child, we lost our best creation and our future," Bonardi said, as his wife, Dorothy, stood behind him. "As a result, we will never enjoy the luxury of having grandchildren because this horrific tragedy also destroyed our family name."

Superior Court Judge Francis J. Darigan Jr. will impose the sentence Wednesday. Biechele will be able to make a statement before he is sentenced.

Anna Gruttadauria, whose 33-year-old daughter, Pamela Ann, was the last of the victims to die, described the experience as "a journey of hell."

Gruttadauria said Pamela had 35 burn operations before suffering a severe infection about 2 months after the fire. Her family eventually removed her from life support.

"We knew she would not have a good life," Gruttadauria said. "She was totally destroyed."

Richard Moreau, father of 23-year-old Leigh Ann Moreau, recalled how his dark-haired daughter donned a blue sweater, kissed her mother goodnight and headed out for what would be the last night of her life. They never saw her alive again.

"Little did my wife know, that would be the last kiss and the last time she saw her daughter," Moreau said, his story periodically interrupted by his tears as his wife, Jean, gently rubbed his back.

Paula McLaughlin, who lost her younger brother, Michael Hoogasian, and his wife, Sandy, said the couple would have been celebrating their fifth wedding anniversary this October, and that the entire family was still waiting for them to come home.

"Do you know what it's like to wake up 1,142 days in complete sadness saying, 'Oh my god, they're not here?'" McLaughlin asked the judge.

Biechele sat quietly, often looking at the relatives as they described their grief.

The judge cautioned family members not to make remarks about Biechele and not to address him directly. Families were not allowed to show pictures of their loved ones in court. The judge interrupted several relatives who attempted to describe their venom toward the defendant or say how long he should be imprisoned, telling one woman to focus on herself, rather than Biechele.

"I'm not interested in the anger you feel," he said.

But relatives did not hold back outside the courthouse.

"I think we should have had the right to address him. He's been given his right to address us. He's written letters to us. I think we should have the ability to say what we feel," said Jessica Garvy, whose sister was killed.

Andrea Silva lost her uncle.

"Mr. Biechele ultimately took his life away from us. We would have him here today if Mr. Biechele just looked up and saw how low those ceilings were and the foam in there," Silva said.

On the night of the fire, as Great White began its first song, Biechele ignited four small pyrotechnic devices that each sprayed 15-foot-long streams of sparks. Investigators said the sparks ignited flammable foam used as soundproofing around the stage, and the flames spread quickly.

The foam had been installed at the club after neighbors complained of noise.

Besides the 100 deaths, more than 200 others were injured in the fourth-deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history, and the worst fire in state history.

Criminal charges are still pending against brothers Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, who owned the nightclub. They have pleaded not guilty. Michael Derderian's trial is scheduled to begin July 31. A trial date has not been set for his brother.

The attorney general's office is seeking the maximum prison term possible under the plea deal, saying Biechele acted callously and recklessly by igniting the pyrotechnics inside the crowded club. Biechele's lawyers are asking for community service rather than prison time, saying he never intended to harm anyone and could not have known about the foam on the club's walls.

Families of the victims have differing opinions on Biechele's punishment.

"I think it would be much more productive for him to serve out his sentence in community service. I think a burn ward would be appropriate," Fox said.

"He should be gone for life," said Patricia Belanger, a victim's mother. "Anybody else wouldn't be getting a cushy deal like he got for killing one person. He killed a hundred."

Biechele, who lives in Florida, married his high school sweetheart within the last month and works at a flooring company while taking accounting classes at night, his lawyers said in a recent court filing. He has expressed remorse by writing personalized letters of apology to victims' families. The letters will be given to family members after he is sentenced.

 

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