A WPRI-TV Providence, R.I., cameraman assigned to cover a story on nightclub safety last Thursday ended up shooting eerie video of Rhode Island's most devastating fire ever, in a nightclub partly owned by a station colleague.
By Friday afternoon, the death toll had hit 86, with more than 150 injured in a fire that authorities say began with a pyrotechnic display by rock band Great White.
The club, called The Station, has been owned by television reporter Jeff Derderian and his brother Michael since March 2000. Jeff Derderian, who had returned to Providence from WHDH-TV Boston this month, was in the club during the performance and the fire. Police told local media the owners likely face safety-violation charges.
Among the missing Friday were one of the band members and radio personality "The Doctor," from Clear Channel's WHJY(FM) Providence, who was emceeing the event, station sources said.
WPRI-TV photographer Brian Butler, who shot dramatic footage from inside the nightclub, described his experience Friday morning in an interview with his station that was circulated to hundreds more by CNN NewSource. "As soon as the pyrotechnics stopped, the flames had started on the egg-crate [foam] backing behind the stage, and it just went up the ceiling, and people stood and watched it."
Butler was at the club because WPRI-TV, owned by LIN Broadcasting, was planning a story on night-club safety. Just four days earlier in Chicago, 21 people were killed and more than 50 injured in a stampede that started when a security guard used pepper spray to break up a fight.
Butler suggested that some fans didn't know that the pyrotechnics had gone awry. "Some people were already trying to leave, and others were just sitting there going, 'Yeah, that's great!' I remember that statement because I was, like, 'This is not great. This is time to leave.'"
In an interview on CBS's Early Show, Butler said the mass exodus started out in a fairly calm manner but then panic set in. He described a bottleneck at one of the exit doors and said several people, himself included, "popped out" from the human pressure. Many of the dead, in fact, were found near the exits, according to reports.
Separately, CNN accused NBC of lifting its feed on the fire without permission. NBC acknowledged using a few seconds of the CNN feed but said it was done as a "fair use" under copyright doctrine. The footage was that from WPRI-TV, a CBS and CNN Newsource affiliate.