Lynch said a prayer, kissed his wife good-bye, and within minutes was on his way back to Rhode Island to begin asking questions about a blaze that would eventually kill ninety-nine people and injure nearly twice that number. When Lynch arrived at the scene around daybreak, rescuers were still pulling bodies from the rubble. As a former prosecutor Lynch has handled a number of murder cases, but nothing, he says, compares to what he saw in West Warwick. “This was a war zone,” he says.
Ever since that night, Lynch has been overseeing the criminal investigation into the fire, which was ignited by pyrotechnic props during a concert by the band Great White. How Lynch handles this case could make or break his fledgling political career. As he tries to uncover the facts of the case, he must balance justice with the concerns of ninety-nine grieving families, 186 injured victims, and a community crying out for someone to blame. “It keeps you focused on your job,” he says, “but it cannot dictate how we conduct ourselves in this investigation.”
With the fire also came a fleet of news reporters—from local stations as well as from CNN and the BBC—seeking details on the investigation. Appearing on the Today show, Lynch explained to the nation how the tragedy affected his home state. “They say there are six degrees of separation in this world,” he said. “In Rhode Island, there’s a degree and a half. The pain rips through this community quicker than any other.” But Lynch has otherwise remained tight-lipped with the press, refusing, for example, to confirm or deny the existence of a grand jury, even though it is now common knowledge that one has been convened. Lynch admits that he’d like to speak more freely, but he believes he doesn’t have that luxury. “Any piecemeal offering of information,” he says, “is a disservice to the families.”
During the 1990s, Lynch, the son of a former mayor of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and the brother of the state Democratic Party leader, served as a special assistant attorney general, working as lead prosecutor in the narcotics and organized crime unit before joining a private firm. The six-foot-five Lynch was a basketball star at Brown and played the sport professionally for a time in Ireland. He still wears the championship ring he won in 1986, when the Bears won their first-ever Ivy League title.
In his new job as attorney general, Lynch supervises a staff of 230, including about ninety prosecutors, and a $17 million budget. Even as the West Warwick case progresses, Lynch and his staff must stay on top of the other criminal and civil cases that flow into the office. In the days after the fire, an eighty-one-year-old woman was beaten to death in Newport. Later a story broke that phones used by officers and witnesses in the Providence police department had been wired. In both cases, as in thousands of others each year, Lynch is in charge. “The pressures on this office haven’t stopped,” he says. “This is trench warfare.”