Trial by Fire by Scott James: New Excerpt

In only 90 seconds, a fire in the Station nightclub killed 100 people and injured hundreds more. It would take nearly 20 years to find out why—and who was really at fault.

Read on for a new excerpt from bestselling author Scott James' Trial by Fire, and watch a trailer below.

FEBRUARY 20, 2003, 11:07 P.M.

It takes ninety seconds to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Human beings, on average, can hold their breath for up to ninety seconds. A typical person needs ninety seconds to read one page of this book.

Ninety seconds marked the moment between life and death on the night of February 20, 2003, at The Station, a scruffy, low-slung roadhouse nightclub in the old New England mill town of West Warwick, Rhode Island. Tragedy started with a song.

Shortly after eleven the rock group Jack Russell’s Great White took to the club’s stage with screeching guitars in the dark. On cue the band’s tour manager Daniel Biechele set off four gerbs—giant sparklers set on the floor behind the lead singer, two blasting bolts of sparks to the sides and two in the middle directed up toward the club’s low, dark, glittered ceiling. The fireworks lasted seventeen seconds and were meant to evoke the aging metal band’s former stadium glory days in the nineties, creating an ethereal glow behind the performers. The audience went wild.

The sparks ignited a small fire on the wall to the left of the stage. Nine seconds later a second trickle of flames appeared on the wall to the right of the stage.

Jeffrey Derderian, a local television news reporter and the club’s coowner, his clean-cut appearance at odds in a sea of rockers, saw the flames from the corner of his eye. As usual, he’d been too busy working the bar to watch the show, so his first thought was that something in the morass of sound equipment had caused an electrical fire. Jeffrey ducked under the counter and darted toward the stage and spotted soundboard operator Paul Vanner with a fire extinguisher in hand, also en route. Jeffrey pointed and barked, “Get up there!” Neither man could. The crowd was too thick, and as a deafening guitar riff raged, frenzied fans jumped up and down with their arms raised in the classic heavy metal tribute, a fist in the air with pinkie and forefinger extended. “Rock on!”

Great White’s forty-two-year-old lead singer, Jack Russell, belted out the opening lyrics of “Desert Moon” from the band’s 1991 album Hooked. His microphone was upcut at first, set too low to be heard over the guitars, but then his voice filled the club, his tenor still powerful a dozen years after the band’s prime. “Let’s shake this town, baby, come with me! I need a little loving company!”

Sixteen seconds after the first flames appeared on the walls, the fire expanded and reached the ceiling.

The crowd in front of the stage kept raving, many believing the growing pyre was theatrics, a planned part of the show. They howled in appreciation. Some patrons in the back of the audience, however, sensed trouble and began to orderly evacuate.

Singer Jack Russell was unaware he was surrounded by danger, so he hit the next lyric, “Come on, now, I know where we can go!” Then he noticed the burning wall, stopped singing, and the band quieted. “Wow. That’s not good,” Russell said, deadpan, and picked up bottled water to toss at the wall to no effect. He’d halted just short of the verse, “I’ve got a fire like a heavenly light.” 

Thirty seconds had passed since the first flames appeared.

Two seconds later, like a lit match dropped into a pool of gasoline, the fire surged across the walls and ceiling.

As band members escaped through the stage door exit—forty-one seconds after the fire started—the nightclub’s alarm blared, emitting an intense, piercing wail. Emergency strobe lights pulsated around the club. The siren signaled that the blaze was not part of the performance, and there was a sudden shift in the room. Panic. Patrons turned from the stage and raced toward the club’s main entrance, the door they had arrived through. Few headed for any of the three other exits. In the melee, the casual camaraderie of fellow concertgoers was replaced by a fight for survival. “Get out of my way!” a man shouted, shoving others aside.

Sixty seconds after the first trickle of flame, the stage was fully engulfed and then disappeared from sight, replaced by choking pitchblack smoke that plunged the club into darkness. A survivor later described the smoke as a “thick, menacing blanket” dropped over everyone’s heads.

With too many people trying to escape through one door, the stampede became a pile that made the exit impassable.

Ninety seconds after the fire started, the black haze reached the floor, smothering all inside. The building burst into a raging inferno and the night sky filled with jolts of flames and the sounds of explosions and terrified screams.

In ninety seconds nearly everyone still inside The Station nightclub was dead or dying. It was the deadliest single building fire in modern American history, and the nation’s deadliest rock concert. In the United States, where billions have been spent on fire prevention and protection, there should have been time to escape, to be safe.

It would be years before anyone knew what really happened—and who was truly to blame.

Copyright © 2020 by Scott James. All rights reserved.

Watch the book trailer here:

About Trial by Fire by Scott James:

All it took for a hundred people to die during a show by the hair metal band Great White was a sudden burst from four giant sparklers that ignited the acoustical foam lining the Station nightclub. But who was at fault? And who would pay? This being Rhode Island, the two questions wouldn’t necessarily have the same answer.

Within 24 hours the governor of Rhode Island and the local police chief were calling for criminal charges, although the investigation had barely begun, key evidence still needed to be gathered, and many of the victims hadn’t been identified. Though many parties could be held responsible, fingers pointed quickly at the two brothers who owned the club. But were they really to blame? Bestselling author and three-time Emmy Award-winning journalist Scott James investigates all the central figures, including the band’s manager and lead singer, the fire inspector, the maker of the acoustical foam, as well as the brothers. Drawing on firsthand accounts, interviews with many involved, and court documents, James explores the rush to judgment about what happened that left the victims and their families, whose stories he also tells, desperate for justice.

Trial By Fire is the heart-wrenching story of the fire’s aftermath because while the fire, one of America’s deadliest, lasted minutes, the search for the truth would take years.

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