Photo Credit:
Nathan Phillips
Photo Credit:
Ian Tuttle
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In  Conversation  with

Frances Dinkelspiel

Veteran journalist Frances Dinkelspiel is the author of the New York Times bestseller Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession, and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California (St. Martin’s).
Shortly after reading Trial by Fire, she interviewed Scott.

Frances: Scott, congratulations on your new book. Let’s talk about the premise.

Scott: Trial by Fire is about the deadliest single building fire in the United States since modern fire prevention codes. It’s also the deadliest rock concert ever in America. 100 people died when the band Great White lit off fireworks inside a small roadside nightclub called The Station in the old New England mill town of West Warwick, Rhode Island. A tragedy of this scale is not supposed to happen today in the era of modern fire codes and billions spent on prevention.

Frances: You had grown up in Rhode Island, spent a lot of time in Providence, and this fire happened in 2003. By that time you've left Providence, and yet years later you decided to investigate this fire. Can you tell me why you went back to the story? It had been sort of put to bed many years earlier. Why did you decide you needed to know more?

Scott: I had long since moved to California and had a career out there. But on that night, February 20th, 2003, I was watching on television when this horrific tragedy happened. I had been in that same nightclub years earlier. So I was glued to my TV. 

But as I watched something was said during the coverage that really stuck in my mind.

The local police chief announced to the media who was guilty – and it wasn’t the band that set off the fireworks. At that point, we didn't even know that any crime had been committed. It really looked like a horrible accident. And the situation was still unfolding. It wasn’t clear how many people had perished, or why the club burned so fast.

So I thought…wait a minute, who pronounces guilt before they've done the investigation?

But a little bit of context here. Not only did I grow up there, but early in my career I was in the news business there. For years I ran a local TV newsroom in Providence. Rhode Island has a history as a notoriously corrupt state. So when the government says something, you generally look at it with skepticism. 

 

With the fire, despite the enormous loss of life, there were never any trials, not criminal or civil. None of what the government accused people of was vetted in court. No one was ever cross-examined to see if they were telling the truth.

So the public mostly got the government's versions of events. Over the years when I returned home from California to visit family and friends, I would sometimes ask about the fire.  It is the worst thing to happen where I grew up. But even though the case was officially closed, people felt that justice had never been served, and that they never got the whole story. So after a while I decided to start asking questions.

Frances: So how did you go about trying to uncover what the true story was? One of the things about this book that is so extraordinary is the amount of research you did. You comment that there are tens of thousands of pages of grand jury testimony, police reports. You interview many, many witnesses. 15 years after an event happened where, as you mentioned stories have pronounced somebody guilty, how do you go about trying to uncover the truth?

Scott: Well, one of the things that I decided early on was that I needed more than what had already been reported. As I mentioned, I was a news director at a TV station there and one of my employees was a reporter named Jeffrey Derderian. And he was one of the co-owners of the nightclub. In fact, he and his brother Michael would be accused of causing the fire.

I discovered that Jeffrey had never given an interview to anyone. Even though he was a journalist, he had never spoken to a reporter. And because there were never any trials, the Derderian brothers never had their day in court to share what they knew about the fire.  But it turned out they hated journalists. They hated every reporter who had covered the fire. They were determined to never speak to reporters.

So over the course of years I was in touch with Jeffrey. We’d talk a little bit here and there about him possibly telling what he knew. Finally, and after a while, he started to share pieces of the story and I was able to gain his trust. 

I think my advantage over other journalists was that not only had Jeffrey and I worked together 20 years ago, but also that I wasn't there and I didn't cover the story when it happened. So I had not upset him by being part of that initial media pool. I came to this story with fresher eyes than maybe other people had.

Eventually he agreed to be interviewed and introduced me to his brother Michael. After that, things just seemed to happen. I got access to a treasure trove of documents that had never been seen by the public before. Then more and more people who had never told their side of the story talked to me. They gave me information that shed new light on what happened and raises very serious questions about our institutions that we believe are going to be there for us and protect us. Those institutions failed the people in this tragedy.

Frances: So the police chief where this happened made a very early declaration that Jeffrey and his brother might be to blame for this fire. Yet your reporting shows that it was almost like an airplane accident in the sense that it had to be a series of things that came together to constitute such a terrible fire and to have so many people die. Can you just share a few of the things that you discovered in the course of your reporting that haven't really been fully discussed that sort of contributed to this tremendous loss of life?

Scott: The band lit off fireworks inside a nightclub that had a 12 foot ceiling and the fireworks themselves had a 15 foot arc. So this was a recipe for disaster right away. The fireworks were illegal, and the band had been warned.

There were other aspects of the club, the safety of the club. The club had recently passed a safety inspection. But, in fact, it was a death trap. As soon as those fireworks hit the wall, the club became an inferno and within 90 seconds those inside were dead or very seriously injured. By analyzing once-secret grand jury testimony, and by talking to insiders for the first time, there’s new insight into why the club burned so quickly and why people could not get out quickly enough to save their lives.

But there’s also something highly unusual about this fire that took it beyond being a horrible tragedy. It was captured on video. From the inside.

Today we're used to seeing everything caught on tape, so to speak. Back then it was actually very rare to have tragedies caught on video. In 2003, smartphones had not been invented. But in this particular case, there was a professional local TV news photographer in there shooting a totally different story who just happened to be rolling when the band lit off its fireworks. So you actually see the fireworks, you see the sparks, you see the flames grow up the wall. It's very unusual to have a tragedy of this magnitude captured on video, especially by a professional journalist. You can count the times on your fingers. You've got the Hindenburg disaster, you've got the plane hitting the Twin Tower, but otherwise these things are usually caught on tape by amateurs, not by a professional TV news crew.

So that leads to a very interesting question. What was a professional television photojournalist doing in that nightclub? The answer to that plays a crucial role in the investigation of this tragedy and also ultimately its outcome.

 

One of the things that I was able to do was speak to that journalist. He had never consented to do an interview before. He’s been publicly vilified and condemned – accused of videotaping while people died in front of his eyes, like he didn't care. The truth is different from that.

Frances: Well, this book is an indictment of a lot of institutions and how they acted badly during this catastrophe. Can you talk a little bit about the role of the media in the story and what they got wrong and why that matters?

Scott: The media can have an impact on an investigation and on a case that may ultimately prove to be not quite fair. In breaking news coverage, mistakes are often made. But this is more than that. Let’s walk through just one of the moments I look at in the book that impacted this case.

Because of the unique video this story went from being a terrible tragedy to being something seen all over the world. A media frenzy. News organizations converged on this little town in Rhode Island, and everybody was trying to get a scoop.

 

After the police chief pronounced the Derderians were guilty, they were ordered by their attorneys to no longer talk to investigators or prosecutors. On the night of the fire they freely shared what they knew with police and the Attorney General’s office, but after that comment from the chief it became clear that a decision had been made about their guilt before doing the investigation. You don’t help investigators who have already decided you’re guilty. 

This refusal to talk enraged investigators and prosecutors, and they began a drumbeat in the media against Jeffrey and Michael. And the media coverage shifted to focus squarely on the Derderian brothers.

The Derderians are of Armenian heritage. So during the fire investigation, when emotions were very intense and there was a public outcry for justice, the Providence Journal ran a front page, six-column-headline story that said that the brothers had a “legacy of death." 

As you know, Armenians were the target of a genocide by Turkey back at the turn of the last century. So that's the first piece in the puzzle in the Journal’s case against the Derderians – that they had a so-called “legacy of death.” The second example cited in that story was that when they were children, their mother died of heart failure. So that's number two of their legacy of death. Number three, the family owned a convenience store in a tough part of Providence and there had been a shooting years earlier and their father was shot and their other brother was shot and they almost died. Then, of course, number four, was the nightclub tragedy. So the story put forward this idea – that these guys basically bring death wherever they go.

Frances: The Providence Journal, which is the dominant paper in Rhode Island, has always been considered a very excellent paper.

Scott: Yes, but that one story turned out to be a pivotal moment that forever prevented the public from hearing key information about the fire until now.  When the “legacy of death” article ran, the Derderians decided that day they would never be treated fairly by the media. So they never shared what they knew with journalists. They have evidence that raises many questions about the fire. But because there were never any trials where they could present that evidence, and because they did not trust the media to tell the public, only now is this information coming out. 

Frances: What the brothers had to say is very important to understanding how this fire started and why so many people died.

Scott: There was so much finger-pointing in this disaster, but the nightclub owners' views on guilt is surprising and fascinating and sent me on a journey into the criminal justice system.

 

There are so many layers to this tragedy. Look, this wasn’t just a failing of government, although government fails in spectacular ways in this case, but also the business community. Whether or not people are really looking out for their customers, or for the public's safety.

There’s also the aftermath. You had all these families left devastated, who lost loved ones, and people terribly injured who needed help, and the help was not there.

We have this system in this country of charity and giving that rushes to people in times of need. We've seen that over and over again, but in 2003, the system of raising money online and doing fundraisers for people had not really been invented yet. People were left to fend for themselves. A lot of them were from working class, limited means, and as they're trying to recover, they're being evicted from their homes. Their cars are being repossessed and no one is helping them. It's an eye-opener.

Frances: So I'd like to talk about how you chose to tell this story. 100 people died in the fire and you decided to focus on a few people who were affected by this fire. Can you tell me why you took that approach and how does that help a narrative by focusing on a few?

Scott: 100 people died and hundreds of others were injured, and every single one of them deserves to have their story told and preserved. But in the confines of a book, you really can't completely tell 300 stories and expect it to fit in a few hundred pages. So what I needed to do was narrow my lens and pick people who were representative of the tragedy. So we meet people and follow them before, during, and after the fire, people who perished, people who survived. Then we meet people, some who I've already discussed, who were vilified. The brothers, the photographer who shot that video and others. So we've narrowed the lens so we can get to know these people.

I tried to humanize these people, to get in their point of view. This is a scene-driven book. The narrative is told like a novel almost in how it unfolds for these main characters. We are inside their heads. We see things from their close point of view.

In order to do that, I needed to develop a new type of reporting, at least it was new for me. I would travel out to the East coast and sit down with people and do an initial interview to get the facts I needed to write a scene. Then I came back a few months later and with a draft of what I had written and did a table read.

At the table would be the person whose point of view is being told, and sometimes others who might be in that scene. We would read aloud each page, each word, each sentence. The person whose point of view was being told had to sign off on it and had to say to me, “Yeah, that's exactly right, that's what I was thinking, that's what I was seeing, that detail is correct." Or correct what wasn’t right. And the others at the table could offer corrections and feedback too.

The table reads were incredible. They provoked emotions and surfaced new information, new insight, and new feelings. These second rounds gave the story a layer of intimacy you just could not get doing it as a daily reporting. You understand how people think and you're feeling it with them.

Frances: So that is a complete reversal of traditional journalistic practices. Generally journalists don't pre-screen stories to people that they've interviewed. It's interesting to hear just how that turned out. It deepens the narrative. Do you think that should be done more often, showing people what's going on in a journalist's story before it gets published? Do you advocate for that approach?

Scott: It's problematic on a daily journalism basis. But I do think journalists generally strive to be as accurate as possible. So in a project like this, where I was given the time to do it over the course of years, I was able to develop this technique.

Frances: Well, I think you did a fantastic job. This book is a page-turner. I could not put it down. I devoured it in just a few days. Can you share with us what impact you're hoping this book will have?

Scott: It's unfortunate to say, but I don't think that lessons have been learned. In news we often say, “Could it happen again?" It has happened again repeatedly. People believe, they have this false sense of security, that the systems are in place to protect us from these horrific tragedies. But the fact is that even a scenario almost exactly like the one that happened in this case – a rock band sets off firework in a club, the club instantly becomes an inferno – has happened multiple times since this tragedy.

Talk about a warning, a red flag – yet even more people have been killed in very similar incidents in Brazil and in Argentina. Here in the United States, just a few years ago, we had a terrible fire in Oakland. At the Ghost Ship warehouse fire 36 people were killed. Even though the facts were different, the bigger questions are about the same. Where were the systems that were supposed to protect these people? Where were the fire codes? That was obviously a terrible failure in Oakland. That was just very recent. We are not really protected the way that we should be.

Today we’re seeing a pandemic, and people have been let down by the institutions that were supposed to protect them. That was also the case with the nightclub fire. It’s like the canary in the coal mine warning that our systems are not necessarily going to be there when the time comes. 

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Copyright © 2020 by Scott James. Site by APTÉ.