Death toll reaches 96 in fire at R.I. nightclub; 187 hurt: Criminal probe opens; search of ruins continues
February 22, 2003
By Thomas Farragher and Douglas Belkin
WEST WARWICK, R.I. - A rock band's explosive light show ignited a lightning-quick blaze, a curtain of blinding smoke, and a panicked stampede to escape a hellish inferno that killed at least 96 people in one of the deadliest nightclub fires in US history.
Scores of Great White fans trying to save themselves Thursday night were trapped in doorways, squeezed so tightly that few could slip out as the fire, fueled by the acoustic insulation behind the stage, consumed the crowded building.
As emergency crews searched the ruins of The Station nightclub yesterday for bodies and evidence, state and federal authorities opened a criminal investigation that initially focused on who was legally responsible for the indoor fireworks at the wooden, one-story building.
"I would say to let off pyrotechnics in that building you were asking for trouble," said Rhode Island Governor Donald Carcieri, adding, "If there's criminal wrongdoing, believe me, it will be pursued."
At least 187 people were being treated for burns and other injuries. Thirty-five of them were listed in critical condition last night with severe burns and smoke inhalation.
The nightclub owners said the band did not have permission for the theatrical fireworks that signaled the opening of their late-night set around 11 p.m. The band said it had received that approval from the nightclub.
Authorities, who interviewed band members and club owners, said neither had the state and local approvals required for a pyrotechnics display. Approval would have been "absolutely" denied if it had been sought, officials said.
Carcieri said investigators, led by the state attorney general's office, would seek to assess blame after the remains of all victims had been recovered and their families - some of whom searched frantically for loved ones at area hospitals yesterday - had been notified.
"This building went up fast. Nobody had a chance," Carcieri said. He said officials believe the bodies of all victims have been found.
Scenes from the fire - whose chaos and carnage was reminiscent of Boston's Cocoanut Grove blaze that killed nearly 500 in 1942 - were captured by a Providence television station that employed one of the nightclub owners, TV reporter Jeff Derderian.
Derderian, at the club with a cameraman, escaped the fire and later was questioned by law enforcement officials.
The television images, broadcast worldwide by early yesterday morning, showed nightclub patrons cheering with pumped fists and longneck bottles of beer as Jack Russell, lead singer for the band Great White, began his set singing "Desert Moon."
As guitars wailed, pyrotechnics similar to Fourth of July sparklers exploded on stage, and the pumping fists turned to frantic hands pointing to the fire.
Almost immediately, flames licked acoustic material behind the stage and danced across the nightclub's ceiling.
Fire officials said the club was fully aflame within three minutes.
"I saw a wall of flame going up to the ceiling and it was just mayhem, panic," said John Reagle, a drummer for Great White's opening act. "As soon as we made it out the side door, everything went black inside."
Joe Barber, who lives near the club, said he escaped by climbing over victims at a side door. "It was terrible, terrible," said Barber, who burned a hand helping others to safety. "People just clawing, scratching, punching - anything they could do to get out. You feel so helpless."
Some patrons at first believed the fire to be part of the act, then described a chilling tableau of fear as patrons rushed for exits in smoke so thick they couldn't see. Exits were quickly blocked by patrons felled by fire, smoke, or by chaotic trampling. Some broke a window and jumped through to safety.
West Warwick Fire Chief Charles Hall said the club's fire alarms were working, its fire extinguishers were workable, and its exit signs were lit. But he said the club was not required to use a sprinkler system because it was in operation before that requirement was adopted, and because of its relatively small size.
"If there were sprinklers in this building, we wouldn't be standing here right now," Hall told reporters. He said "any pyrotechnics in the interior of a combustible building is unsafe."
As crews raked through charred timbers, a sometimes emotional Hall described a macabre scene inside The Station. He said in the "panic and chaos," about 25 bodies ended up stacked up at the nightclub's entrance.
Others were found near the club's three other operating fire exits, near the stage and the bar. Some, he said, were found in the club's restrooms.
Fire officials, he said, have a copy of the WPRI-TV tape of the fire's beginnings. "Any video or any evidence that we can get is important," Hall said.
Russell, whose heavy metal band was nominated in 1990 for a Grammy, said the group has used the pyrotechnic displays "four or five" times since they began their most recent tour last month in Chicago.
"There's also been occasions when we've gone to the club and they said yes, we can use it, and we said, `No, it doesn't look safe,' " he said. "It's like sparklers. You can put your hand over them. I stand there every night with my arms over them and I don't get burned."
Russell's contention that he has always asked permission to use the pyrotechnics and received that approval for Thursday night's show was immediately contested by the club's owners. Michael and Jeffrey Derderian, who own The Station, said the band did not seek or receive that permission.
"At no time did either owner have prior knowledge that pyrotechnics were going to be used by the band Great White," they said in a statement issued by their lawyer, Kathleen M. Hagerty. "No permission was ever requested by the band or its agents to use pyrotechnics at The Station, and no permission was ever given."
The owner of a nightclub in Asbury Park, N.J., said Great White used the theatrical pyrotechnics during a performance last week without giving club managers advance notice. "Our stage manager didn't even know it until it was done," said Domenic Santana, owner of the Stone Pony.
One patron recalled a small fire during a show at The Station a year ago, but officials said there was no record of it.
Paul Woolnough, president of Great White's management company, said he did not know details about the approval process for Thursday night's show. "Part of this tour, they have been using those effects," said Woolnough. "And it's always done on a case-by-case basis. . . . I would presume that permission was granted."
Hagerty said the Derderians, who purchased The Station in March 2000, are "devastated and in shock over these events, which have claimed the lives of so many, including their friends.
"Jeffrey Derderian was in the club at the time the fire broke out, and assisted in helping to evacuate the building during the fast-moving fire. Mr. Derderian was interviewed by state and local authorities [Thursday] night on the scene and provided all information as requested."
The capacity at The Station, built around 1950, was 300. Fire officials said they believed there were fewer than 300 patrons there on Thursday night. But Carcieri, compiling figures of those dead, injured, or safe, said there may have been as many as 350 people inside.
"There seem to be more people than we had been led to believe," the Rhode Island governor said.
Investigators are examining additional pyrotechnics found on the site, but did not assess their significance.
Carcieri said seven bodies had been identified by last night. Eight more are expected to be quickly identified by "visual inspection." Five teams of forensic pathologists from around the country are headed for Rhode Island to help state authorities identify remains, using dental records and DNA.
Emergency crews adopted a somber ritual at the burned-out wreckage. Firefighters removed their helmets and paused for a moment of silence when a body was discovered. Fire chaplains said prayers over the remains. Officials said the club's 1,700-square-foot basement was badly flooded and would have to be pumped out to determine whether more bodies are there.
"This is really a tough, tough day," said Carcieri, who spoke with a couple who escaped the club through a rear entrance. "Their description to me was that in 30 seconds, if you weren't out of that building in 30 seconds, you didn't have a prayer."
The scene was bathed in floodlights last night as work continued. During the day, a large section of the busy thoroughfare was closed as a large construction excavator knocked down remaining support beams and helped clear rubble. Fire trucks were positioned to block onlookers' view of the recovery effort.
The blaze at the nightclub 15 miles southwest of Providence was the deadliest fire at a US nightclub since 1977, when 165 people died at the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Ky. And it was the second deadly episode at a US nightclub in four days.
Twenty-one people died in a Chicago melee early Monday after a security guard used pepper spray on patrons after a fight broke out.
"An investigation has begun," said state Attorney General Patrick Lynch. "The investigation will continue. But now is not the time to discuss the investigation. What is most important is notifying the victims' families and offering support to the many Rhode Islanders who are suffering at this time."
As rescue workers raked through the wreckage, Julie Belson, 31, struggled to recover from the shock of surviving a fire she watched unfold.
"I was in the front row with my boyfriend and I saw it catch fire," said Belson, a dental assistant from Rowley. "It was growing. It was really hot. The heat was like crazy. It burned off my bangs. My instinct was to grab my bag."
Belson was briefly lost in blinding, black smoke. Then she found a window. But not her boyfriend. "I don't remember if anyone helped me and I don't remember landing," she said. "I just remember turning around and he wasn't there."
Outside and badly shaken, Belson stumbled into her boyfriend, who was covered with soot and was listed last night in serious condition at Rhode Island Hospital with burns to his face and hands. "I couldn't believe how fast it all happened," said Belson, who said she could spot herself and her boyfriend in the television tape of the fire."
I thought, `Oh my God. I'm going to die.' I couldn't see anything. We were all holding our breath."
(Geoff Edgers, John Ellement, Christopher Rowland, Jonathan Saltzman, Megan Tench, and Joanna Weiss of the Globe staff contributed to this report, along with Globe correspondents Heather Allen, Peter DeMarco, and Jeff Nilsen. Material from the Associated Press also was used.)
In seconds, elation turned to horror
February 22, 2003
By Ellen Barry and Raja Mishra
WEST WARWICK, R.I. - Before the smell of burning flesh, before his knuckles were bloodied by scrambling feet, before the yelling turned into inarticulate screams, before he saw people with flaming hair and half-melted faces, everything was different.
Christopher Travis was singing in his pick-up truck.
For the last month, in preparation for the show, Travis had been playing his Great White compact discs at top volume on his way to and from the construction site where he works. He had first seen them live in 1986, when he was a hard-partying 20-year-old, and despite the changes that followed - a marriage, a divorce, sobriety - few things make him pump the air in wild joy like the opening chords of "Desert Moon."
While Travis was shaving a razor-edge into his goatee, Erin Pucino was checking her watch at the Shell station cash register where she works, and 19-year-old Mike Ricardi was interviewing Great White lead singer Jack Russell for his college radio show, "Jim and Mikey's Power Hour."
By the following morning, all three would-be survivors of one of the deadliest fires in US history, gazing into the smoking rubble where at least 96 people had died: They would be wrenched out of dense piles of bodies, having groped along the floorboards of The Station and seen charred bodies in the snow outside the nightclub. Mike's friend Jim would be missing. Erin's friend Tammy would be missing.
At 9 p.m., though, it was all anticipation. Travis, in a satin Harley-Davidson jacket and black jeans, offered up the ticket he had bought for $15 at Strawberries Records. Past a bald bouncer, he stepped into a smoky club whose floor was sticky with beer. It wasn't the type of place you would take a first date, said one musician who had performed there.
Waitresses mingled through the crowd with racks of beaker-shaped shot glasses. The crowd, Travis noticed, "had a good buzz going." Great White's guitarist played the first few chords of "Desert Moon" opening the 11 p.m. set, and Travis was elated.
"I pumped my hands in the air," he said. "I had been waiting for this for a long time."
The Station was a thicket of waving hands, dozens of hands curled into the heavy-metal "Devil's Horns" symbol, when the act opened with three fountains of sparkling fireworks. As the cones of fire grew behind him, Russell leaned into the microphone, silhouetted by flame. The stage was bathed in orange light.
There was a moment, a pause. Twenty-six-year-old Rena Gersheris, carrying a rack of shots, gazed at the sparks and decided they were part of the show. Travis, who said he had seen fire break out at The Station at another show last fall, waited for someone to spring forward with a fire extinguisher and put out the fire as they had last fall.
"But nobody did anything," he said.
Pucino's friend grabbed her by the hand and said, "We're going now."
As captured on film, the waving hands suddenly moved differently: They pointed urgently toward the back-right corner of the bar, where one exit is. The music stopped. One of the musicians said something into the mike; it sounded muffled and echoing.
A male voice said, "I'm just going to the door." A woman said, "I can't move." Her voice rises to a shriek. "I can't!"
Then the power cut out. The fire poured up the wall onto the ceiling.
As he fell out of a side window onto a deck below, Michael Ricardi, a sophomore at Nichols College, felt the presence of his grandfather, a Worcester firefighter who died in a burning building. "I went that way; you're not going to," Ricardi said he imagined his grandfather saying. On the deck, wandering among charred and unconscious bodies, he was unable to cry, he said.
Pucino, a baby-faced 25-year-old, grasped her friends' hands tightly and made it to the front door - but was crushed under 15 to 20 people who fell on top of her. Her arms flailed at the door's opening and her legs were crushed by the weight of human bodies, Pucino said. Then she felt a hand grab her hand. Two women and one man were pulling her. They pulled her for two minutes, Pucino estimates, and while the women lost their grip on her, the man was holding her tightly when she fell, free, to the ground.
"I'd do anything for that man," Pucino said later. "I don't know who he was. I saw his arms, but not his face."
For his part, Travis was knocked to the ground, and started crawling along a wall as people stomped on his fingers. Hands pushed him forward, and he burst out through a side exit. There were people with their hair burnt off, and people with chunks of skin missing, people with blisters all over. Some people were rolling in the grass. Some people were ripping their clothes off. Some people had puffy winter jackets burning. On all fours, Travis realized that the smell in his nostrils was burning bodies.
"I've never smelled it before, but I knew what I was smelling," Travis said.
Anthony Carsetti, who was driving home with a bag of dog food at 11:15, saw two people stagger out of the club's entrance. Then he saw a dozen, running. Some had hair on fire. Then their faces began to be charred. Some crawled out of the club on their hands and knees. Some of them walked around stunned.
"It looked like they were zombies coming toward us," said Kim Toher, a waitress at the Cowesett Inn.
At the inn, waitresses began filling bags with ice. The 130 to 140 people treated there were suffering from second- and third-degree burns and legs broken from being trampled. Those who escaped found, often, that the friend who had been right behind them had been scorched in the seconds after they jumped out. A 34-year-old Pawtucket man who identified himself only as John said he had let go of his fiancee's hand only at the last moment, when he jumped through the window. Yesterday morning, when John was talking to reporters near the burn site, his fiancee was in critical condition.
"She was only in there four seconds longer than I was," he said.
The patients were wrapped, mummylike, in gauze, and transported to area hospitals. Dr. Selim Suner, an emergency room physician, said about a dozen of the 60 patients brought to Rhode Island Hospital have life-threatening injuries. Many have burns on their hands, suggesting that they were trying to crawl out of the club over a burning floor.
"I haven't ever seen the number of burn patients so concentrated as this one," he said. "One by one, they just kept coming."
Shortly before dawn, a local pastor approached Russell, who was standing near the site of the fire answering questions from reporters.
"You could see he was just on the verge," said Dave LaChance, pastor of the New Song Christian Fellowship. "I just asked him if he wanted someone to pray with. We just held on to each other a little bit."
The smell of carbon came and went yesterday morning, sometimes mingled with alcohol and sometimes, people thought, with rubber. After all four walls had fallen, the entrance to The Station - a section of wall painted with a 6-foot head of Ozzy Osbourne - still stood.
Travis drove himself to Kent County Memorial Hospital. The first thing he did when he got in his truck was play "Desert Moon."
He has an upwelling of wanting for the band members, and wants to give them his condolences.
But he has decided not to go to any more live rock shows.
"Maybe it's time to grow up and move on," he said.
(Chris Rowland, Megan Tench, Tatsha Robertson, Douglas Belkin, Anne Barnard, and Jonathan Saltzman of the Globe staff and correspondent Peter DeMarco contributed to this story.)
As hopes wane, families keep looking for answers
February 22, 2003
By Michael Paulson and Michele Kurtz
Early in the day, they arrived at the charred remains of the West Warwick, R.I., nightclub, pressing against the police tape, begging the firefighters for shreds of information.
Throughout the afternoon, they called, faxed, e-mailed, and visited a dozen area hospitals, offering photographs and descriptions to doctors trying to identify the sometimes unrecognizable victims.
But by evening, many family and friends of concertgoers were losing hope that their loved ones might have survived the inferno that destroyed The Station just as the headline act, Great White, was finishing its first song.
The missing were people like Robert Croteau, a 31-year-old Great White devotee, who enthusiastically followed the band from gig to gig and who proudly had the band's logo, a shark, tattooed into his left shoulder. Croteau's family members fanned out to area hospitals, hoping against hope that he had survived.
There was the band's 28-year-old guitarist, Ty Longley, who has not been seen since the ill-fated opening song. His website was updated yesterday morning with a plaintive appeal from his friends, "Come Home, Ty!"
And then there was Michael Gonsalves, a 40-year-old Providence disc jockey known as "The Doctor," who claimed to be the host of the country's longest-running heavy metal show, and who introduced Great White on Thursday. Six employees of WHJY-FM in Providence attended. Five came out alive, but Gonsalves remained missing.
"We're frustrated and we're broken-hearted, and we're just hoping he's still alive," said Bud Paras, WHJY's general manager.
Hospitals were deluged by family members trying to locate the missing. At Massachusetts General Hospital, which was treating about a dozen victims, family members looking tired and scared paced the hospital lobby, while others talked in hushed tones to medical officials.
"My heart really goes out to the families who have a relative who they think was involved in this fire," said MGH's Dr. Alasdair Conn.
"They have no idea where they are."
Barbara Kulz of Warwick, R.I., said she was sure her 30-year-old son, Michael, was at the Great White show because she spotted him in video from the concert that was shown on television. Kulz said she and her husband have notified the Red Cross that Michael is among the missing, and they are frantically calling anyone who might be able to help find him.
"So many were lost in that fire, and so much time has gone by and most of [the injured] have been identified," she said. "With so much time, we really don't have any hope. I know he was in the fire - that's definite. His friend wound up in the hospital. We're hoping for a miracle."
Last night, Michael's father, George, e-mailed a photograph of his son to Mass. General, where there was still one unidentified male survivor. After that, he planned to stay home and wait - he said there was nothing left to do.
"Him and I used to go to breakfast on Saturday morning," Kulz said. "It's going to hurt."
For several hours yesterday, Patricia Belanger tearfully toted a picture of her 30-year-old daughter, Dina Demaio of West Warwick, to area hospitals. A legal assistant during the day, Demaio had been waitressing at The Station for several months to earn extra money as she raised her 7-year-old son.
Demaio normally waited tables on weekends, "but because of the concert they asked her to go in [Thursday]," said her sister, Kristy Garvey.
When Demaio didn't come home yesterday, Belanger drove to the club and found her daughter's car outside the charred building. Later that afternoon, Belanger drove to Mass. General hoping that one of the victims who had not been claimed by family members might be her daughter.
"She's not on any list that's out there," Belanger said.
Meanwhile, family members struggled with what to tell Demaio's young boy.
"If he asks any questions, we're just telling him she's sick right now," Garvey said.
Many of the victims, according to hospital officials, ranged in age from their late teens to their late 30s. Most had one thing in common - their fondness for Great White, a metal band that debuted in 1982 and is best known for its Grammy-nominated 1989 hit, "Once Bitten, Twice Shy."
The audience included men like Kevin R. Washburn, 30, and Michael Stefani, avid fans and best friends planning to move in together. Stefani, of North Kings town, R.I., had seen Great White at least six times before.
Inside the club, the two split up. When Stefani emerged from the men's room, he watched the flames in horror. Unable to find Washburn, a forklift driver from Franklin, Mass., Stefani fled out a back door and then ran to the front where he tried to help pull people out.
"I pulled one guy out. That's it," Stefani said.
Washburn was nowhere to be seen.
Among the missing were some of the people who helped organize and promote the show.
Gonsalves, a New York City native and a longtime fan of heavy metal, began his career while at Rhode Island College working at the school's radio station.
"He was somebody who really loved what he was doing, and was just a good fellow," said Gary Penfield, vice president for student affairs at Rhode Island College.
Longley was born in Sharon, Pa., and joined Great White in 2000. He began his career playing clubs in Sharon and is well-known in the small town, according to Sarah Adams, a news editor of The Herald, a local newspaper. According to his website, he loves rum and coke and pizza and jogs as a hobby.
Yesterday, Nicole Fusco of Coventry, R.I., arrived at the club looking for her uncle, Tom Medeiros of Coventry, a 40-year-old worker at Bradford Soap in West Warwick who took a day off to make the concert.
She said she learned from one of his co-workers that he went to the club with his girlfriend, Lori Durante of West Warwick. Neither of them had been heard from since.
Medeiros's maroon pickup truck was still parked in the club parking lot.
"We checked all the hospitals and he isn't on any of the lists," Fusco said. "We haven't heard anything."
As the day wore on, family members grew ever more anxious. By last night they decided to gather for solace.
"He was a big fan of the band," said Andrea Silva, Medeiros's niece. "We're just together now."
Some families were frustrated by conflicting information. Relatives of Steve and Andrea Mancini of Johnston, R.I., were losing hope even as a friend said she had heard that the Mancinis had survived. With no certain word, family members faxed to Mass. General the couple's wedding photo, taken just 15 months ago.
"The doctor on the phone said it doesn't match the description," said Dino Jacavone, one of Andrea's 10 brothers and sisters.
"Some people said they saw them get out," Jacavone said, his voice cracking. "But no one can find them. So we're just waiting."
The Mancinis worked the door at the club, he as a bouncer and she taking money; Steve, 39, also runs the fish department at a Stop & Shop in Providence, and Andrea, 28, helps direct her family's garden center in Johnston.
Steve has a third occupation: guitarist for the band Fathead, which opened for Great White on Thursday night.
(John Ellement, Scott S. Greenberger, Tatsha Robertson, Christopher Rowland and Megan Tench of the Globe staff contributed to this report.)
Stories copyright 2003 The Boston Globe. Reprinted with permission.
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