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Jimmy Gahan was ecstatic when he was offered the opportunity to interview Jack Russell, the lead singer of Great White.
But what should have been a joyous night ended in tragedy.
On Feb. 20, 2003, The Station nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island, burst into flames when pyrotechnics from the rock band landed on flammable foam installed as soundproofing. One hundred people, including college student Jimmy Gahan, died. More than 200 others were injured.
The horrific evening is being explored 19 years later in a new Reelz documentary, “America’s Deadliest Rock Concert: The Guest List,” airing Sunday. It’s told from the personal perspectives of those who were there. Gahan’s father, James Gahan, also spoke out for the special.
“I can’t even begin to tell you how elated he was,” James recalled to Fox News Digital about the 21-year-old. “He was on cloud nine. You could just see the perpetual smile on his face.”
The Massachusetts native was a celebrated high school athlete when he turned to music as a disc jockey at Nichols College. He and his pal, Michael Ricardi, were the hosts of “Jim and Mikey’s Power Hour” on the college radio station WNRC.
“He was totally into sports, but he always had this connection to music,” James explained. “He would always go to concerts, and that’s how he met Mike Ricardi. They bonded over music. And after going through injury after injury, that’s when the music took over. They loved classic rock, and that’s what they played every night. They even got the chance to interview several major figures from the ‘70s and ‘80s. They were just elated.”
On the night of the concert, Gahan was gearing up to interview Russell for their show.
“He used to like my cooking. So, right before he left, I cooked his favorite dinner,” said James. “It was broccoli with pasta and chicken with shallots. I just remember him smiling and then heading off while he floated on cloud nine. That was the last time I saw him.”
Gahan and Ricardi spoke to Russell in the band’s bus, which was parked in the nightclub’s parking lot. Great White was scheduled to perform later that evening. Gahan and Ricardi decided to stick around for the show.
At around midnight, James said, one of his son’s roommates headed to the family home. Something was wrong.
“One of Jimmy’s friends heard about what happened at the club,” said Gahan. “He went to get more information. I remember I sat in the dark just in total shock, just waiting for anything that I could get. Nobody knew where Jimmy was. At around five o’clock, we then received a notice for family members to go to some hotel that was now a command center set up by the governor. We pretty much knew at that point it was just going to be a question of identification.”
It was reported that the venue was engulfed in flames within minutes. Amid the chaos, Ricardi couldn’t see his friend but was hoping that Gahan was right behind him. Ricardi found a broken window and jumped through. While he survived, Ricardi spent years suffering from survivor’s guilt.
For James, devastation didn’t even begin to cover what the family felt.
“During the first few days, we were just in complete shock,” he said. “Then it all turned into anger. I remember during the funeral hundreds of people showed up for Jimmy. It was then that my wife and I realized we needed a place where we could channel our energies, our emotions. That’s when we started a charitable foundation in honor of Jimmy.”
James donated his son’s CDs to WNRC. The Jimmy Gahan Charitable Foundation, which James established with his wife, was instrumental in the radio station getting an upgrade, the Telegram & Gazette reported.
According to the outlet, the foundation raised more than $200,000 and worked closely with the community to set up lights for a Little League field. It also provided scholarships for students to attend Nichols, among other colleges. James said the foundation gave the family a sense of comfort and purpose during their grief.
In 2008, members of Great White agreed to pay $1 million to survivors and victims’ relatives, Billboard reported. At the time, roughly $175 million had been offered by dozens of defendants to settle lawsuits over the blaze.
The outlet noted that the fire began when Great White’s tour manager, Daniel Biechele, shot off streams of pyrotechnics at the start of the concert. Those sparks then ignited cheap packaging foam that was used as soundproofing. As part of the settlement, the band didn’t admit to any wrongdoing. One member, guitarist Ty Longley, was killed in the fire.
The outlet reported that the surviving band members were never charged. Biechele pleaded guilty in 2006 to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter and was paroled after serving less than half of his four-year prison sentence.
The band claimed it had permission for the pyrotechnics, but club owners Jeffrey and Michael Derderian denied the claim. The outlet noted the brothers pleaded no contest to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter in 2006. Jeffrey was spared jail time and sentenced to community service and probation. According to reports, Michael was released after earning time off for good behavior. He spent less than three years behind bars.
When reached by Fox News Digital, a spokesperson for Great White wrote, “The band would respectfully decline comment.”
Gahan’s family helped pass legislation in Massachusetts that would require automatic sprinkler systems in bars and nightclubs with an occupancy of 100 or more people.
“We will never know how many lives will be saved by this law,” the Falmouth Fire and Rescue Department announced in a statement. “We hope Jim’s family takes comfort that his star will forever shine on!”
A similar measure was among 10 recommendations for improvements to fire codes released by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
James pointed out that shortly before the Station nightclub tragedy, the Fine Line club in Minneapolis experienced a similar fire caused by pyrotechnics, but its sprinkler system and wide exits saved lives.
Today, James said Ricardi has stayed in touch with the family. In 2015, Ricardi wrote a book about his friendship with Gahan titled “Just a Thought Away.” As for the foundation, James said its last fundraiser was about four years ago around the time that his wife became ill. Carol Gahan died in 2021.
The site of the fire is now a memorial.
“This was eventually going to happen one night,” James reflected about the Station nightclub fire. “It wasn’t an accident; it was just a situation that was waiting to happen … We shouldn’t ever take anything for granted. When something like this happens, you always wonder if you told the people around us if you loved them enough. I say, don’t wait. Keep telling those in your life how much you love them. Mike’s title rings true. [My son] is just a thought away.”
“America’s Deadliest Rock Concert: The Guest List” airs Feb. 20 at 8 p.m. on Reelz. The Associated Press contributed to this report.