The fire started when pyrotechnics set off by Great White, the rock band playing that night, lit flammable soundproofing foam behind the stage. The flames were first thought to be part of the act; only as the fire reached the ceiling and smoke began to billow did people realize it was uncontrolled. The ensuing stampede in the inferno led to the numerous deaths among the patrons, who numbered somewhat more than 404, the highest of three conflicting official capacity limits.
The pyrotechnics were gerbs, cylindrical devices intended to produce a control spray of sparks. Gerbs are consided appropriate for indoor use before a nearby audience when proper precautions are observed. Due to age and size, the Station was not required to have a sprinkler system and it was not equipped with one.
Investigators focused on the foam material which had been installed behind the stage. The foam was of a kind intended for use in packaging and product display and not for soundproofing buildings, and would not have been treated with fire-retardant materials. Witnesses to the fire have reported that once ignited, flames spread across the foam at approximately one foot per second. Through attorneys, club owners said they did not give permission to the band to use pyrotechnics. Band members have claimed they had permission.
In the early days after the fire, there has been considerable effort to assign and avoid blame on the part of the band, the nightclub owners, the manufacturers and distributors of the foam material, and the concert promoters.
The beginnings of the fire were caught on videotape by cameraman Brian Butler for WPRI-TV of Providence, for a planned piece on nightclub safety being reported by Jeff Derderian, a WPRI news reporter who is also a part-owner of The Station. The report was inspired by the Chicago nightclub stampede that claimed 21 lives four days earlier.
Recently, Derderian had filed a report on mattress fires in which he described packaging foam as "solid gasoline".
Thousands of mourners attended a memorial service on February 24 to remember those lost in the fire.
On December 9 2003, the two owners of the nightclub, Jeffrey A. and Michael A. Derderian, and Daniel M. Biechele, the band's former road manager, were charged with 200 counts of involuntary manslaughter — two per death. All three pleaded not guilty to the charges.