Fire Marshal Retires on Disability Five Years After Club Fire
By Talia Buford; Journal Staff Writer
WEST WARWICK – Denis P. Larocque, the fire marshal who inspected The Station nightclub at least twice in the three years before the fatal 2003 fire, has retired from the Fire Department, citing an occupational disability, an official confirmed yesterday. His retirement was effective Feb. 3.
“It’s a disability retirement for a job-related injury,” said acting Fire Chief Gerard Tellier. He said he could not be more specific because it involves a medical issue.
Larocque, a 30-year veteran of the department, voluntarily left the fire marshal’s position in 2005. He has since held the position of battalion chief. However, he has been out of work on disability for nearly 18 months. His retirement comes almost exactly five years after the deadly blaze.
In the years since the fire, Larocque has never spoken publicly about the fire or his role. Larocque’s inspection reports did not cite the flammable polyurethane foam on the walls of the club as a violation of the state fire code. On Feb. 20, 2003, the foam, sparked by the pyrotechnics used to open a concert, caught fire quickly, spreading the blaze through the wood-framed building, killing 100 people and injuring hundreds of others.
He also has never explained why he raised the club’s patron capacity at least twice over the three years.
Larocque’s request for a disability pension will be discussed by the town’s Pension Board today, according to Geoffrey E. Rousselle, chairman of the pension board.
“I haven’t had a chance to look over it, but it pertains to a disability pension and it also has to do with the 18-month clause in the union contract,” Rousselle said. “After 18 months, there’s nothing the Pension Board can do to disallow a disability pension. It becomes automatic.”
The Fire Department contract says that firefighters who do not return to work after 18 months because of an injury or illness will be placed on disability retirement. The contract guarantees they receive two-thirds of their current salary. Disability pension payments will increase proportionally as the salary of an active firefighter in their position increases.
Battalion chiefs now earn $58,191.12 yearly, not including overtime or any longevity bonuses. That means Larocque’s pension payment would be at least $38,794.08. At the time of the fire, Larocque earned just over $49,000.
During the months Fire Department employees are on disability, Rousselle said, the fire chief and the town manager are supposed to monitor their progress to determine if they can return to work.
“I don’t know if any of that occurred,” Rousselle said. Town Manager Wolfgang Bauer was fired in December after admitting to mismanaging funds for a development project. Fire Chief Charles D. Hall left the department last month to take a job with the fire and rescue squad at T.F. Green Airport.
“I’m a little confused as to what our role is, because it’s an automatic pension,” Rousselle said. “I don’t know if it’s an application we have to receive, something we need to vote on and ratify. I have questions myself.”
The department will name a new battalion chief to replace Larocque, Tellier said, by promoting someone from within the ranks. Until that replacement is made, the vacancy will be filled through overtime, he said.
Larocque joined the department in 1977 shortly after graduating from West Warwick High School and rose through the ranks. He was appointed assistant deputy fire marshal in 1994 and became fire marshal in 1998. In that capacity, Larocque performed annual inspections for liquor license renewals, investigated fires and approved building plans, among other duties.
Larocque raised the standing room capacity of The Station nightclub from 253 to as high as 404 people. According to data compiled by The Providence Journal, 462 people were in the club the night of the fire.
Larocque is among those named in a civil suit seeking damages for the victims and their families.
Town Council member Peter F. Calci Jr., who represents the area where The Station was located, said town officials cannot comment on the fire or Larocque specifically because of pending litigation.
Calling the fire a “tremendously unfortunate tragedy for the town” that residents are still dealing with daily, Calci said, “I hope that all involved are able to bring this to a resolve as soon as possible.”
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