Station Nightclub Fire: How Attorney General Patrick Lynch Shielded the Guiltiest Party

[February 20, 2009 is the sixth anniversary of the fire at the Station nightclub.]
Attorney General Patrick Lynch has given two principal excuses for his refusal to prosecute Denis LaRocque, the man who repeatedly inspected the Station nightclub in his capacity as a West Warwick Fire Inspector. Let us examine them.
1.) “Without malice or bad faith, criminal capability cannot attach to fire marshals”
With these words, the Attorney General cites the two exceptions to sovereign immunity specified by Rhode Island law and the reason that he purports to believe that West Warwick Fire Inspector Denis LaRocque was not criminally responsible in the matter of the fire. To assess this conclusion, we need to review LaRocque’s actions. In carrying out his official duties with regard to the Station nightclub, did West Warwick Fire Inspector Denis LaRocque act in good faith and without malice?
During repeated inspections, he
> Failed to enforce fire safety laws for existing conditions in the club
LaRocque failed to order the abatement of the foam covering the doors, walls and ceilings – foam whose flammable qualities have been described as akin to gasoline.
> Actually violated fire safety laws himself in repeatedly increasing the occupancy level of the club
Have you noticed that public establishments post a sign announcing their legal capacity? The fire authority is required to furnish such a sign after inspecting. LaRocque did not put up such a sign at the Station nightclub; the number he had reached was so high and far-fetched, he knew he wouldn’t have been able to explain or defend his calculation.
The result of these actions and failures was devastating. The foam supplied a fast-acting fuel to Great White’s pyrotechnics. And because the Derderians, aided by Denis LaRocque, had packed far too many people in the club, once the fire had started, it was physically impossible for hundreds of people to leave in time.
Returning to the Attorney General and the two exceptions to sovereign immunity, there is no evidence that Denis LaRocque undertook his official actions out of malice. That leaves the second exception: the requirement to act in good faith. Do his deliberate and repeated failures to enforce critical fire prevention laws and his … creativity in calculating capacity constitute a lack of good faith?
That’s what a Grand Jury tried to determine.
Responding to the Grand Jury’s request for a definition of “bad faith,” after waffling, both Assistant Attorney General William Ferland and prosecutor Michael Stone provide one that incorrectly incorporates “malice,” mix in some innuendo that LaRocque might have been a volunteer firefighter, and then conclude that, in any case, “bad faith” does not apply to Denis LaRocque. (Wasn’t it the Grand Jury’s job to determine that?)
The Grand Jury also asked Denis LaRocque himself questions about the two critical matters of the foam and his calculation of capacity. Patrick Lynch’s prosecutors took it upon themselves to deflect their questions: at various points, changing the subject, calling for a break and even answering for LaRocque.
After persisting in some damn good questions, the Grand Jury finally gave up. (What else could they do in the face of such shuffling and misinformation?) Patrick Lynch’s prosecutors had successfully blocked the Grand Jury from examining Denis LaRocque as a potential guilt party.
Now to the second excuse of Attorney General Lynch.
2.) It is up to the Grand Jury to indict. My office lacks the power to indict.
And on another occasion, when asked why Fire Inspector LaRocque was not indicted, Attorney General Lynch stated, “That’s what the grand jury returned. I can only do what they say.”
These statements are completely false.
Firstly, the Attorney General refused to even submit Denis LaRocque as a defendant to the Grand Jury, saying “no reasonable person could find that LaRocque had acted in bad faith or with malice.” If it was up to the Grand Jury, why not, in fact, submit Mr. LaRocque and let the Grand Jury do their job?
Secondly, short of a capital crime, the Attorney General assuredly does have the power to indict. See page nine of this information sheet from the Web site of Rhode Island Superior Court. Patrick Lynch did not lack such a power, he deliberately chose not to exercise it.
In sum:
If Denis LaRocque did not act in “bad faith,” why didn’t Patrick Lynch’s prosecutors supply a definition of the term?
If there was an innocent explanation for Mr. LaRocque’s handling of the foam and the occupancy level, why didn’t Patrick Lynch’s prosecutors let him supply it?
If Patrick Lynch disagreed with his prosecutors’ handling of the case and their “successful” steering of the Grand Jury, why didn’t he simply indict Denis LaRocque himself?
Most observers strongly suspect that Denis LaRocque is the party most responsible by far for the terrible fire of February 20, 2003. Count Rhode Island’s chief law enforcement officer decidedly among their ranks. Why else would he use all of the considerable power of his office to abstain Fire Inspector Denis LaRocque from the process of justice?

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Phil
Phil
12 years ago

Most observers strongly suspect that Denis LaRocque is the party most responsible by far for the terrible fire of February 20, 2003. Count Rhode Island’s chief law enforcement officer decidedly among their ranks. Why else would he use all of the considerable power of his office to abstain Fire Inspector Denis LaRocque from the process of justice?
This conclusion is beyond any measure of fairness. I have not commented on any of the Station fire news coverage or on the trial that found the gentleman who lit the pyrotechnics and the owner of the club who allowed the act to include pyrotechnics responsible. I have not out of respect for the survivors. I know some of them and using the tragedy to score political points is disgusting.

Mike Cappelli
Mike Cappelli
12 years ago

OK, everybody, let’s remember this is Rhode Island. And here is the deal on this one. Frank Montanaro is the president of the RI Association of Firefighters. He is also president of the RI AFL-CIO, and he is the Democratic National Committeeman from RI. One other member of the Democratic National Committee is Bill Lynch – brother of Attorney General Patrick Lynch – by virtue of his position as executive director of the RI Democratic Party. This was the lineup when the Station Fire lawsuit was going on.
Everyone knows how important the unions are to the Democrats getting elected in this state. Now, knowing all these cozy relationships, do I need to elaborate any more as to why the Attorney General did not go after the fire inspector?

Tom Kenney
12 years ago

I agree that this tragedy is not one which we should be using for political gain, however, it is something that we should have learned from and use that knowledge to keep all RI’ers safe in the present and the future.
We began down that road with the passage of a number of fire codes that kept public safety as the #1 focus. Unfortunately, as time faded our memories businesses and towns began attempting to lessen the codes by claiming the cost was too high. Was the cost of 100 lives cheaper by comparison?
We are dancing down that road once again by attempting to reduce fire department minimum staffing levels for budgetary concerns. There is no doubt that the number of victims that horrible night was a direct result of a woefully understaffed fire department in West Warwick. There were only 2 men p/truck on the first two responding vehicles that night and there were only 11 firefighters on duty in the entire town!! This is basically the same staffing you will find today.
While no department could have saved all the victims that evening, a well-staffed fire department could have saved a good number of those in the front of the building. Alas, we will never have a well-staffed fire department in this state (every single fire department in RI is under-staffed), but the last thing we need right now is to further reduce the minimum staffing levels. The savings will be counted in dollars, but the cost will be counted in souls.

Patrick
Patrick
12 years ago

“towns began attempting to lessen the codes by claiming the cost was too high.”
So then let’s just require a hard-wired alarm system from every building structure in the state, along with sprinkler systems. That’d be safer than the $10 smoke detectors most houses have, right? Hey, safety at any cost, right?
“There is no doubt that the number of victims that horrible night was a direct result of a woefully understaffed fire department in West Warwick.”
So maybe we should just put 100 firefighters on duty every night, right? Then just about whatever happens, the fire departments will be ready. Hey, you never know when a plane might crash into the Warwick Mall. Is Warwick prepared to handle that? Would a few more firefighters initially on the scene save more lives? Of course.
“(every single fire department in RI is under-staffed)”
Of course it is. We could double the number of firefighters on staff and they’d still be “understaffed”. Same for police, and teachers and …
Despite the tone of my response, I certainly don’t disrespect you or the job you did as a firefighter or the job that any firefighter does. However, I’m just pointing out the alternatives to your arguments. Yeah, we’d all love to have the most perfect safe lives, but there are costs involved and you do have to draw a line somewhere in balancing it out. Where that line should be is open for some debate.

Mike Cappelli
Mike Cappelli
12 years ago

Hey Tom,
Enough of your feigned indignation about lives being lost. If one lousy, lazy fire inspector did his damned job, 100 people would be alive today!
You keep trying to push the blame to “businesses and towns began attempting to lessen the codes by claiming the cost was too high.”
BULL! If the inspector enforced the rules on the books at the time, none of this would have happened. All the regulation in the world won’t change that fact.
Remember, Tom, it’s one of your own, your union brothers that is responsible for 100 lives being lost. I hope you sleep well knowing that. Glad to see nothing stops you louts from sticking together. Just one more example of what you are made of.

Tom Kenney
12 years ago

Patrick,
<<<<< So then let's just require a hard-wired alarm system from every building structure in the state, along with sprinkler systems. That'd be safer than the $10 smoke detectors most houses have, right? Hey, safety at any cost, right? >>>>>
I never said “at any cost”, but you make my point about people complaining about the cost of the codes. The codes only pertained to places of assembly or multiple dwelling units – over 3 units, I believe.
<<<<< So maybe we should just put 100 firefighters on duty every night, right? Then just about whatever happens, the fire departments will be ready. Hey, you never know when a plane might crash into the Warwick Mall. Is Warwick prepared to handle that? Would a few more firefighters initially on the scene save more lives? Of course. >>>>>
Again, I never said to put 100 firefighters on every night in West Warwick (or Warwick for that matter). I pointed out that there were only 11 FF’s in the whole town that night. If you think that’s adequate and the citizens of West Warwick think that’s OK, then keep it that way. The present proposals by the Gov would allow mayors and town managers to reduce their city or town’s manning even further.
Also, West Warwick and many other cities and towns in this state allow fire trucks to respond to structure fires with 1 or 2 FF’s on board on a routine basis. Do you think that’s enough? I’m not proposing 10 FF’s per truck. I would propose 4 FF’s per truck. That is the “minimum” standard set forth by the NFPA. I understand that budgets are stretched, but it is IMPOSSIBLE to do any offensive firefighting or any search and rescue operations at a fire with 2 FF’s – period.
<<<<< Yeah, we'd all love to have the most perfect safe lives, but there are costs involved and you do have to draw a line somewhere in balancing it out. Where that line should be is open for some debate. >>>>>
Yes it is open for debate. My opinion on this is drawn from 29 years of experience responding to fires and other emergencies and seeing first hand the devastation they bring. I know that many lives could be saved by having “adequately” staffed fire apparatus and fire departments. Not overly-staffed, but adequately staffed. I also realize that others are more concerned with cutting government spending and taxation. There is no clear cut answer. We can’t make everyone 100% safe all of the time.
However, to further cut staffing in RI’s fire departments would be disastrous.

Biago
Biago
12 years ago

No one here has yet addressed the political climate of West Warwick at the time of this tragedy.
For far too long, there was a climate of political privilege and a philosophy of what’s in it for me with the Station Fire being the end result.
I believe LaRoque was working 4 on, 3 off during this timeframe. He also had a side business as a contractor. I have yet to see a published account of exactly how much he earned that year but I believe it was in excess of $93,000. The Projo reported his base salary when he retired but never did delve deeper to ascertain exactly how much he receives in Pension benefits based upon actual earnings vice base salary. The people of the state should be up in arms.
As for the BS about the WWFD. The nearest fire station is less than a ½ mile up the road and the main station less than 5 minutes away. This is just a smoke screen to provide cover for what transpired.
If the then existing Fire Code had been enforced this tragedy might not have occurred.
If the Police Officer on duty had called in the WWFD, this might not have occurred.
It will be interesting to see what role Speaker Murphy and Rep Williamson play in any state bailout of the town.
After all this occurred in WW and just that should be enough for anyone to understand why the victims of this tragedy did not receive justice. WW was a entity unto itself where the rule of law never figured into the equation.

Tom Kenney
12 years ago

Biago,
I don’t know anything about the political climate in WW at the time, nor do I know anything about the Fire Inspector’s hours, businesses or his complicity or lack thereof in this tragedy. I would not attempt to defend him because I do not know the full story of his involvement. For this same reason I will not throw stones either.
I agree with you that had the existing Fire Codes been enforced this tragedy may not have occurred. As for the Police Officer’s first call, it wouldn’t have mattered much.
But I’m puzzled at what your statement, “As for the BS about the WWFD. The nearest station is less than 1/2 mile up the road and the main station less than 5 minutes away. This is just a smoke screen to provide cover for what transpired.” means.
If you’re stating that my arguement about the WWFD being woefully under-staffed that night (every night) is a smoke screen, I have to tell you that you are wrong on this account. There may be much more to this story, including political corruption (I don’t know), but the staffing levels were the major factor in the enormity of the tragedy once the fire began. ONLY 3 FF’s from the first station!! When the main station finally responds (5 minutes later!!! – that’s an eternity in the fire service for response times) they bring another 4 FF’s? At that time they probably had 4 vehicles there and only 6 or 7 FF’s!
Again, you are right in the fact that THE major factor that evening was the noncmpliance to the existing Fire Codes – including occupancy.

Phil
Phil
12 years ago

Tom Kenney
I would exempt you or other firefighters from the charge of politicizing this tragedy. Your experience is needed to examine the various factors that led to such an appalling loss of life. I also would say that leasons learned from the staffing levels then would also be welcome as changes in minimum manning is being contemplated as a cost saving measure. I’d like to ask your opinion on a related matter. Just before the Station Fire Cranston mayor Laffey was making a lot of noise about ending the pratice of mutual aid claiming that Cranston was being short changed. In reading newspaper accounts after the fire in WW and the report that was reluctantly made public by the Governor’s office there was praise for the rescue efforts of the many fire departments from surrounding communities. It seemed to me at the time that the mutual aid system had worked even though there was the loss of life. Any thoughts on mutual aid?

Justin Katz
12 years ago

Tom,
The factor to which people are reacting, I think — and this applies to the broader debate — is that your primary and most forceful response to a story regarding inadequate fire inspections and endemic political corruption was to pivot off of the now-excessive fire codes to turn the conversation toward minimum manning. In that process, you skipped right past the fire official momentarily in the spotlight.
That looks single-minded and not a little suspicious. The sincerity of firefighter unions (not necessarily you in specific) must come into question when their members are not first among those decrying the failure to adequately inspect the building and to call for prosecution of that official. If safety were their primary concern, then the fact that “THE major factor that evening was the noncmpliance to the existing Fire Codes” would be the area of emphasis.

Tom Kenney
12 years ago

Allow me to respond to Phil first… Phil, RI’s Mutual Aid Agreement for fire departments is the best system we can provide to allow sharing of personnel & apparatus in the event of a major emergency or for an occassional instance of a city or town’s resources being otherwise tied up on a number of smaller and more ordinary types of calls. It (Mutual Aid) is a great thing. This is the primary reason fire departments like WWFD or Warwick Fire Dept., etc. don’t need to have a hundred firefighters on duty at all times. The system, however, is overused and overly depended upon for the wrong reasons. For instance, Providence abuses the system when it comes to Rescues. The number of times that there are 6 or more Rescues from out-of-town (in addition to Providence’s 6 Rescues) busy on calls in the city is staggering. Many times N Providence or Cranston or some other town would have all their Rescues in Prov while leaving their citizens to rely on Mutual Aid from another town if they are in need of EMS. In the EMS side of the equation Providence is, by far, the biggest abuser of the system. The fire side of the agreement is another thing altogether. On this side, the smaller cities and towns are the ones who overly rely on Mutual Aid. They are forced to because a single fire in their community uses all of their resources. Relying on the system for this purpose is what the Mutual Aid system is designed for. The problem with relying too heavily on the system is that there has NEVER BEEN A SINGLE INSTANCE where fire companies responding on Mutual Aid have saved a life. If you think about it you’ll realize that this makes sense as rescuing… Read more »

Tom Kenney
12 years ago

Justin, I would strongly (and I suspect the majority of my fire department, union and non-union brothers and sisters would also) support prosecution of the Fire Inspector “if” he knowingly overlooked or disregarded any of the code violations for which he is accused. I say “if” because I just don’t have a clue as to what transpired at the times of the previous inspections. This is not a cover-up or an excuse on my part but merely the fact. I don’t know. I have a strong suspicion that none of the individuals here or in the general public have any specific knowledge of what actually transpired and what Insp. LaRocque did or didn’t do. It is my opinion that many people who believe that the big, bad unions had a hand in pressuring the AG into protecting him are giving unions in this state more power than they could possibly weild. I realize that there are those in this state who think that everything is a cover-up and that unions run everything. Obviously their opinion is going to difer from mine. Let someone step forward with evidence. If there was any “special considerations” for the club regarding inspections or occupancy standards, etc. I would suspect that it would be just as likely to point at the political figures in the town as anyone else. As for the “now-excessive fire codes”, we are going to difer on this subject forever, Justin. I, as most individuals in the fire service, have always been for stricter fire codes and enforcement of these codes. We have long lobbied for sprinkler systems, better alarm systems and stricter building codes. For instance, and this is something you will understand Justin (being in the construction/carpentry business), we have long lobbied for the banning of truss roofs. Although… Read more »

tom kenney
12 years ago

Monique,
I am not about to argue about the fact that if the existing fire codes were followed that evening and enforced during inspections that this fire wouldn’t have occured. You’re right, it wouldn’t have happened.
You are mistaken, however, when you state that the new fire codes would have “accomplished absolutely nothing”. A working sprinkler system would have changed the whole scenario.
Also, and I’m trying to stay calm, but how can you state “…clearly minimal manning was not an issue”????
It was not an issue in the cause of the fire. It was, however, a HUGE issue on the number of lives lost.

EMT
EMT
12 years ago

The fire prevention laws on the books at the time of the Station fire were perfectly adequate.
And when codes (or enforcement) fail, 6 men on the first three trucks isn’t going to cut it.

Tom Kenney
12 years ago

But, no amount of enforcement of any degree of any fire codes will prevent all fires. Therefore, to say that minimum staffing requirements are not an issue is a foolish statement.
Minimum staffing levels and state fire codes are the “minimum” standards that the law allows. They are however, almost without exception, the everyday working standards. No fire department, and almost no builder or building owner, ever exceed the “minimum” requirements.

EMT
EMT
12 years ago

The point of fire prevention laws is that it is far more effective and less destructive to not have a fire at all than to try to put one out once it has started.
It’s pretty foolish to advocate fire suppression staffing based on the assumption that codes are foolproof.

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