May 10, 2006

Tour manager imprisoned for deadly RI club fire

By Richard C. Lewis

PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island (Reuters) - A rock band tour
manager who set off fireworks inside a Rhode Island nightclub
and started a blaze that killed 100 people was sentenced on
Wednesday to 15 years in prison but 11 years were immediately

People gasped in the courtroom when Judge Francis Darigan
sentenced Daniel Biechele, 29, who set off the pyrotechnics
when the heavy metal band Great White played at The Station
nightclub in nearby West Warwick on February 20, 2003.

Biechele had pleaded guilty in February to 100 counts of
involuntary manslaughter. In addition to the prison sentence,
the judge sentenced him to three years of probation.

"How do you feel now?" Patricia Belanger, who lost her
daughter in the blaze, shouted to Biechele's sobbing mother as
her son was handcuffed and led away.

Calling the judge's ruling "a joke," Belanger said, "She
will get her son back in four years, and they'll go back to
being a happy family. What will we have? Nothing."

Sparks from the fireworks ignited the club's soundproofing
foam and many patrons, overcome by toxic fumes, were trapped at
the door as the wooden roadside club burned to the ground.

Two hundred people were injured.

Before hearing his punishment, Biechele wept uncontrollably
as he apologized over and over to the court for his role in the
blaze, the fourth deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history.

"I know I will never forgive myself for what happened that
night," said Biechele, who wrote personal letters to each
victim's survivors over the last months.

Biechele is the first person to be sentenced for the fire.
His lawyers asked for community service while prosecutors asked
for a 10 year prison term under the plea deal. The brothers who
owned the club are awaiting trial on manslaughter charges.

Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch said he thought
Biechele should pay a higher price for 100 lives lost in
America's smallest state where many of the 1 million residents
knew someone who died.

"But you can see how the judge struggled to reach the
decision," Lynch said after the judge noted that Biechele, who
recently married and was taking accounting classes at night,
had no criminal history and showed true remorse for his crime.

The sentence came after two days of heart wrenching
testimony from relatives who described their shattered lives.
Many said they can no longer work and take medication. Some
said they considered killing themselves.

And one sister said she called her dead brother's and
sister-in-law's cell phone again and again only to hear their
voices one more time.