Dealer says club had cheap foam


Published: Saturday, March 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 28, 2003 at 9:50 p.m.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. - The dealer who sold soundproofing to the nightclub where an inferno killed 97 people said Friday the owners bought cheap and highly flammable packing foam, not real acoustic insulation.
Experts said the packing foam burns like gasoline and emits a dense, toxic smoke.
Store records show that The Station club purchased "the lowest grade, the cheapest stuff," said the dealer, Aram DerManouelian, president of American Foam Corp. "They had choices and that's what they bought."
The death toll from the blaze rose to 97 after the death Friday of Linda Suffoletto, who had been in a Boston hospital since the fire. Her husband, Benjamin Suffoletto, 43, also was killed.
About 50 people remained hospitalized, 34 in critical condition.
An attorney for co-owner Jeffrey Derderian wouldn't comment on the purchase and an attorney for his brother and co-owner Michael Derderian didn't return calls.
Investigators visited American Foam's headquarters this week and left with samples of the foam and an invoice for the sale of 25 sheets of low-density, polyurethane packaging foam to The Station for $575, DerManouelian said. He said the company cuts and sells the foam for use as packaging material.
Soundproofing has emerged as a central focus of the investigation into the Feb. 20 fire, one of the deadliest nightclub blazes in U.S. history. Authorities believe sparks from the pyrotechnics of the band Great White ignited soundproofing behind the stage, sending flames racing through the one-story wooden building in West Warwick.
A grand jury is investigating. The June 2000 foam purchase came a few months after the Derderians bought the club, and followed complaints about noise. The invoice does not say who at the club ordered the foam, DerManouelian said.
"They asked for egg-crate material and that's what we sold them," he told The Associated Press. "It's good packaging material. You just can't light it on fire." He said the store also sells fire-retardant packing foam, but "it costs about twice as much."
Jeffrey Pine, an attorney for Jeffrey Derderian, said the brothers installed soundproofing in mid-2000 in response to noise complaints. He would not comment specifically on the foam, saying he wasn't familiar with the purchase and he did not know whether Michael of Jeffrey Derderian arranged it.
Kathleen Hagerty, Michael Derderian's attorney, did not return calls.
Officials with the band maintain they had the club's permission to set off the pyrotechnics; the club's owners deny that.
Great White lead singer Jack Russell was subpoenaed to appear Friday before the grand jury. His lawyer, Neil Philbin, said Russell was seeking immunity from prosecution before testifying.
Rhode Island law prohibits flammable acoustic material on the walls of gathering spaces like bars. The Station was inspected in December, but the report did not mention soundproofing.
"They're seriously concerned they may have missed something," West Warwick Town Manager Wolfgang Bauer said of the building inspectors. "They don't think they have, but nobody is perfect."
A neighbor said he had asked the town council to close the club because of its noise and crowds. Leon Piasczyk, who lives behind the club, said the Derderians had promised to keep the noise under control.
"The police were called on many occasions. The traffic was unbearable, and then at 1 o'clock here come the drunks up the street," Piasczyk said.
Fire prevention experts said the type of foam purchased by the club is highly flammable and emits a dense smoke that contains carbon monoxide, cyanide and other toxic gases.
"This type of material, given its chemistry and lack of fire retardancy, can burn much, much faster than wood," said engineer Ken Rhodes of Underwriters Laboratories in Northbrook, Ill., which tests products for fire safety.
Untreated low-density polyurethane foam might have a "flame spread" rating 200 times higher than the denser melamine foam used as acoustic insulation, experts said.
"Once it goes up, depending on its coating and the type of foam, it can look like a gasoline fire," Nick Colleran, co-owner of AcousticsFirst Corp., said of polyurethane foam. He said the Virginia-based wholesaler does not sell it for use as soundproofing in a public space.
Experts said polyurethane foam also drips once it catches fire, and in liquid form it burns faster and hotter. Survivors of the nightclub fire have described a black, dripping liquid that burned.
"Fire, per se, is not the biggest threat," Colleran said. "The real problem is the smoke. The room fills up with a thick, black smoke and a lot of people are dead before the fire even gets to them."

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