Owner of burned RI club donates land for memorial

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Illuminated crosses representing the 100 victims that perished in The Station nightclub fire, Warwick, Rhode Island

Illuminated crosses representing the 100 victims that perished in The Station nightclub fire, Warwick, Rhode Island. (AP photo)

WEST WARWICK, R.I. (AP) – The owner of the site of a 2003 nightclub fire that killed 100 people is donating the land for a permanent memorial, bringing an end to a yearslong effort to secure the site of The Station fire by families of those killed and survivors of the blaze.

Dan McKiernan, a lawyer for Ray Villanova, transferred ownership of the plot of land in West Warwick to the Station Fire Memorial Foundation on Friday, five months before the 10th anniversary of the blaze, which started when pyrotechnics for the rock band Great White set fire to flammable foam that lined the walls of the club.

A makeshift memorial consisting of homemade crosses, flowers, photos and other personal items cropped up on the site shortly after the fire and has been maintained there by family members of the dead ever since. The site was left open to the public, and a memorial service is held there annually on the anniversary, Feb 20. While the foundation has a design for a permanent memorial and pledges from construction workers to build it, nothing could move forward until it secured rights to the land.

“This is a milestone that everyone has been working towards for the past nine years. We’re fully cognizant of the enormity of this responsibility that we carry for so many people,” Victoria Eagan, a fire survivor who serves on the foundation’s board, told The Associated Press.

In 2006, three people were convicted of 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter: club owners Jeffrey and Michael Derderian and Great White tour manager Daniel Biechele. The hundreds of survivors and relatives of those killed struck a $176 million deal in 2009 with several companies to settle lawsuits brought over the fire. With the civil and criminal prosecutions over, attention turned to building the memorial.

The transfer was announced during a news conference at the site Friday, which was attended by dozens of survivors, relatives of those killed and supporters. Gov. Lincoln Chafee choked up as he offered a prayer, while members of the foundation’s board cried and held hands. In the crowd that gathered to hear their announcement, people hugged and sobbed.

Dave Kane, father of victim Nicholas O’Neill and a former member of the memorial foundation’s board, had been critical of how long it took to secure the land. Last week, he called on the state to seize it by eminent domain, a possibility Chafee and House Speaker Gordon Fox said they would explore. At the site on Friday, after visiting his son’s cross, he said he was thrilled.

“It’s been a long haul,” Kane said.

McKiernan told the AP the Villanova family had always wanted a “tasteful, somber and timeless memorial” at the site, and had been working on donating the land even as Chafee and Fox said they were looking into the legalities of seizing the land. The one condition of the transfer is that a suitable memorial be maintained at the site in perpetuity.

Over the years, McKiernan said Villanova tried to donate the land, including during the settlement of the lawsuit, but concerns were raised at that time that the transfer of the land might not be legal. He said they also had conversations with local and state officials over the years about transferring the land, which did not pan out because of concerns about maintaining the land and other issues.

Villanova, his daughter and members of the foundation met Monday at McKiernan’s office to hammer out terms of the deal in a meeting that foundation board president Gina Russo described as “emotional.”

“It was important for us, but I think just as important for them to give back,” said Russo, who was badly burned in the fire and whose fiancé was killed. “He needs to be able to trust that the right thing is going to be done. It will be a memorial. It will always be maintained. That was very important to him.”

Carol Mancini, whose stepson, Keith Mancini, 34, died in the fire, said it was fantastic to know a memorial would be built, especially for those who live with the loss of their loved ones every day. “It’ll always be here,” she said.

Eagan said that with the land secured, the foundation will now turn its attention to raising money. The foundation has raised more than $100,000 for a memorial, but Eagan said their hope is to raise $5 million over the next five years. She said that up until now, it has been difficult to aggressively raise money because the foundation did not own the land.

They will do everything from hold grassroots fundraisers to hit up “deeper pockets” and major corporations for money, she said. “We know it’s a lofty goal, but it is achievable,” Eagan said.

She said the foundation aims to approve a final design by February. It will be scaled back slightly from a design that was approved a few years ago to make it simpler to maintain. She hopes to hold a groundbreaking on the memorial before the 10th anniversary.

Kane said it was odd to think a memorial would finally be built and was already preparing for it. He said he and his wife would come back soon to take down Nicky’s cross and other items to make way for the new memorial.

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