96 KILLED IN CLUB FIRE STARTED
BY ILLEGAL PYRO SHOW
Feb. 22, 2003
By JESSE HAMILTON
Courant Staff Writer
WEST WARWICK, R.I. -- In the night, The
Station club was a hellish scene of fire, smoke and
And Friday's sunrise brought no ease to Cowesett
Avenue. Ninety-six people were burned, trampled
or smothered to death and at least another 187 hurt
when a rock concert's pyrotechnics touched off a
fire that swept the nightclub in minutes Thursday
The next morning, firefighters searched, dug and
Family and friends of those who died, and
survivors who had been inside, stood by drenched
in hows and whys. Chief for some, though, was the
question: Where? Where is my friend, my daughter,
Jackie Bernard stood by a car as the firefighters
carried out their search, picking through every inch
of an old building that was little more now than a
few green walls and a black pile of rubble.
It was a spot where Bernard had gone the night
before to look for friends that had been with her
inside The Station.
She stood next to the car with tears in her eyes.
The 40-year-old from Cranston knew one of her
friends was badly hurt and in the hospital. But
where was another friend, a woman she worked
with? Bernard said she had dragged her friend
through the crowd, toward the front door as flame
and smoke consumed the club. She pulled her
friend by the coat. She pulled until she couldn't
``The fire was just coming too quick.'' She let go of
the coat, of her friend. Once in the parking lot, the
safe place that maybe only two thirds of the crowd
would reach, Bernard couldn't find her.
``I had to let her go,'' Bernard said. ``Everybody
was just pushing, fighting for their lives to get out
of a burning building.''
Her story was echoed all along Cowesett Avenue
Friday, where dozens of emergency vehicles and
media trucks surrounded the burned out nightclub.
Men and women cried as they looked at the scene
of the deadliest U.S. nightclub fire since 1977, a
blaze that killed 164 in Kentucky. This one, less
than a week after 21 died in a stampede in a
Chicago club, had come to West Warwick, a small
town about 15 miles southwest of Providence.
By midmorning Friday, 150 people -- all relatives
of the missing -- had gathered in a large room inside
the Crowne Plaza Hotel in neighboring Warwick
that the Red Cross had turned into a family center.
Professional counselors and clergy quietly made
rounds. Some people prayed in small groups.
Representatives from Verizon dropped off
cellphones for the families. Wal-Mart brought
teddy bears for the children to clutch. Interviewers
began the delicate task of gathering information
from family members to make it possible to
identify the dead -- the location of any birthmarks
or tattoos, family photographs, dental records.
By early afternoon, 228 people, all of whom had
either escaped unharmed or were being treated at
area hospitals, had been accounted for. But for the
families back at the Crowne Plaza, the
identification process was slow. Seven victims had
been identified by 10:30 p.m. Friday, and
authorities expected to identify about eight more
Among the missing was a 37-year-old career sailor
and his wife. John Frederickson worked at the
Naval Submarine Base in New London and lived in
Coventry, R.I. Navy officials told The Day of
New London that Frederickson was officially
classified as ``whereabouts unknown.''
The scene at the hotel had the feel of the aftermath
of an airplane crash. But there was no manifest.
Wallets and car registrations -- a few of those cars
from Connecticut, according to police -- were a
"The mood in the room varied from frustration to
shock,'' said George Kulz, whose brother, Michael,
was among the missing.
``People can never be ready for something like
this,'' said Barbara McGann, a retired Navy admiral
who directs the Red Cross in Rhode Island. ``The
families want to know where their loved ones are.
There is very little that we can say or do, other
than to be as supportive as we possibly can. It is a
very difficult environment.''
It was a crowded house late Thursday night as the
rock band Great White took the stage. The '80s
rockers pounded their first few notes into the
low-ceilinged club, punctuated for popular effect
by a pyrotechnic show -- an explosion of sparks
from the stage that was greeted with enthusiasm.
The sparks -- set off without a permit from local
and state fire officials and videotaped by a local
television reporter -- started the deadly fire.
They've also triggered an investigation: Did the
band set them off without permission, or were
those running the club aware they were coming?
Investigators said Friday that their job is just
beginning, so they released little information about
their findings so far.
Rhode Island Gov. Don Carcieri said, ``That's an
old building. ... Setting of pyrotechnics in that
building, you were asking for trouble.''
``If you weren't out of that building in 30 seconds,
you didn't have a prayer,'' Carcieri said. ``This
should not have happened,'' he said.
It might not have, if the building were newer and
had to comply with laws for installing emergency
sprinkler systems, said West Warwick Fire Chief
``If there were sprinklers in this building, we
wouldn't be here right now,'' he said.
However, because of the building's small size, it
was not required to have sprinklers. And at least
one fire-safety expert says sprinklers might not
have made much difference against such a
``This seemed to develop with incredible speed,''
said Fred Mowrer, associate professor at the
University of Maryland's Fire Protection
Engineering Department. ``There's a real question
in my mind as to whether sprinklers would have
been effective because it takes a while for them to
Structurally, the building, which Hall said was at
least 40 years old, had four clearly marked exit
doors that were up to code. The Station also had
the proper number of fire extinguishers, he said.
However, crowd estimates suggest the club's
capacity of 300 might have been exceeded by as
many as a few dozen. Authorities pleaded publicly
with those who were at the club that night to let
them know, so they can get an accurate count.
Federal, state and local investigators worked all
day, and many planned to go through the night.
``We're going to make sure we do it right,'' said Jim
McNally, a Boston special agent with the Bureau
of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
When Peter Brousseau, police chief in West
Warwick, was asked whether criminal charges
could be brought in this case, he answered: ``Most
``We are bringing to bear all the resources that we
can,'' the governor promised.
By 5 p.m., authorities believed they had
everybody out -- a total that had climbed
sickeningly during the day from 39 to 65 to 86 to
96 by 9 p.m.
Of 187 taken to hospitals, Carcieri said, 81 were
admitted. Twenty-five were in critical condition,
though none of those hospitalized had died, he said.
For those who were there, though, numbers didn't
tell the story. Even the lucky ones, the ones who
made it outside, have to remember the screams of
people nobody could help. They saw people come
out extremely burned.
For Jack Russell, the Great White lead singer, those
people were the fans who had come to see his
``I just couldn't believe this,'' he said Friday,
standing in a restaurant parking lot across the street
from the club. ``I'm one of the lucky ones.''
He was on stage at about 11 p.m. when the sparks
flew and flames leapt in what he said was the foam
egg-crate sound proofing behind the stage.
He said he was thinking, ``This place is going up
like a rocketship.''
Russell said he threw bottled water at the flames
before he was pulled out a back door. He said
people stopped him from going back in.
``I'm not a hero, but if I hear somebody calling for
help, I'm gonna help them,'' he said. Soon after, it
was ``nothing but flames inside the door.''
He was still there late Friday morning, though he'd
gone to hospitals for a while, following his injured
fans. He also didn't know what had happened to
guitar player Ty Longley. He was missing.
``I don't know how anybody got out of there,''
By late morning, the performer was answering
questions about whether his band had permission
to use fireworks.
Russell and the band's management company said
they always check with a venue before using
pyrotechnics, and that they did this time, too.
Kathleen Hagerty, a lawyer for club owners
Michael and Jeffrey Derderian, said ``No
permission was ever requested by the band or its
agents ... and no permission was ever granted.''
Another club owner, though, reinforced Hagerty's
assertion that Great White doesn't always ask.
Domenic Santana, who owns Stone Pony in
Asbury Park, N.J., said the band used the
fireworks show last week without telling anybody.
``My sound man freaked out because of the heat
and everything, and they jeopardized the health
and safety of our patrons,'' Santana said.
Either way, pyrotechnics were not approved by
fire officials for The Station, Hall said.
After the fire, the club was unrecognizable, with a
few planks from the walls still standing, charred
and wreathed in the smoke that rose as firefighters
pulled out more and more refuse. Giant, clawed
machinery dug through the building.
Occasionally, the action would stop. Firefighters
would gather for slow, gentle work, bagging a body
and carrying it carefully out from the rubble, having
found many of them clustered just inside the front
door and others in pockets all over, including in the
Those on scene weren't the only Rhode Islanders
doing something in the fire's aftermath.
At nearby Kent Hospital, where many of those
hurt were being treated, a blood drive was
conducted. It had already been scheduled for this
day, but as people were greeted by news of the
fire's horror, they began to come out and swamp
this drive and other blood-donation spots. Barbara
Emmons, a veteran nurse at the hospital, said she
was getting double the usual blood donors. They
were turning people away, asking them to make
Emmons said one of the volunteers, a woman who
often pitches in on blood-donation work, came to
them that morning. She had been in The Station the
night before. She wanted something to do.
``It's helping her through her day,'' Emmons said.
Ray Pearson, a regular donor and lifetime resident
of the town, says he remembers when the club was
an Italian restaurant years ago and that the fire is
``one of the biggest tragedies in this area in my life.''
Lt. Steven Bonn works at Station 9 of the
neighboring Warwick Fire Department. On Friday,
he and others had come off shifts at The Station,
where they were helping fight the fire and treat the
wounded. He was among those first on the scene
Thursday night, when chaos reigned and a
single-story building had become a four-story
tower of flame.
``There were a lot of people coming out of the
building,'' he said. His people treated some of them.
When asked if he'd ever seen anything like this in
his career, he quietly answered: ``No.''