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One of the most horrific fires in New England history happened almost a decade ago.
It was at The Station nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island, and it started when the heavy metal band Great White set off pyrotechnics that ignited soundproofing foam on the club’s walls.
In less than a minute, the place was in flames and hundreds of people were stampeding toward the exits. One hundred clubgoers were killed, and about 200 were left with sometimes gruesome injuries.
Now, one of the lawyers who represented the victims, John Barylick, has written a book that traces the events that led to the fire, and the investigations and legal cases that followed. It’s called “Killer Show: The Station Nightclub Fire, America’s Deadliest Rock Concert.”
Barylick told Here & Now that in spite of all of the publicity surrounding The Station nightclub fire, it won’t be the last tragedy of its kind.
“Within three years of The Station fire, there were three nightclub fires around the world sparked by pyrotechnics,” Barylick said. “You would think this wouldn’t happen. But we had clubs in Russia, in Argentina, and in Thailand, with hundreds of fatalities from silly use of pyrotechnics inside a rock club.”
February 21, 2003, dawned stunningly crisp and cold in New England. Over a foot of fresh snow had fallen the previous two days, and conditions were what skiers jokingly call “severe clear” — cloudless blue skies, bright sun, temperatures in the teens, and windchill in single digits. It was, in short, postcard picture-perfect. On this morning, however, the images being snapped by news photographers in the town of West Warwick, Rhode Island, were hardly Currier and Ives material.
In the southeast corner of town sat a nightclub called The Station — or what was now left of it. At present, it consisted of a smoldering footprint of rubble at the end of a rutted parking lot, surrounded by banks of dirty snow into which burning bar patrons had blindly thrown themselves just eight hours earlier. Th e site resembled the scene of a battle, fought and lost. Discarded half-burned shirts littered the lot, along with soiled bandages and purple disposable rescuers’ gloves. Hearses had long since supplanted ambulances, the work of firefighters having shift ed from rescue to recovery.
Alongside the smoking remains of the club, a hulking yellow excavating machine gingerly picked at the building’s remains. Its operator had demolished many fire-damaged buildings before, but none where each “pick” of the claw might reveal another victim.
Yellow-coated state fi re investigators and federal agents wearing “ATF” jackets combed the scene, while a department chaplain divided his time between consoling first responders and praying over each body as it was removed. Only snippets of conversation among the firefi ghters could be overheard, but one — “bodies stacked like cordwood” — would become the tragedy’s reporting cliché.
And there was no shortage of reporters covering the fire. By late morning, over one hundred of them huddled in a loose group at the site, faces hidden by upturned collars, their steamy exhalations piercing the frigid air at irregular intervals. Stamping circulation into their cold-numbed feet, they awaited any morsel of news, then, fortified, drifted apart to phone in stories or do stand-ups beside network uplink trucks.
Following protocol, all but designated spokesmen avoided contact with the press. The area had immediately been declared a crime scene, and yellow tape, soon to be replaced by chain-link fence, kept reporters far from what remained of the building itself. During the first daylight hours, news helicopters clattered overhead, their rotor wash kicking up ash and blowing the tarps erected by firefighters to shield the grisly recovery effort from prying eyes. That vantage point was lost after one chopper got so low it blew open body bags containing victims’ remains. Immediately, the FAA declared the site a “no-fly” zone. Good footage would be hard to come by.
That is, good post-fire footage. Video of the fire itself, from ignition to tragic stampede, had already been broadcast throughout the United States and abroad, because a news cameraman happened to be shooting inside the club. The world had seen the riveting images: an ’80s heavy-metal band, Great White, sets off pyrotechnics, igniting foam insulation on the club’s walls; concertgoers’ festive mood changes in seconds to puzzlement, then concern, then horror as flames race up the stage walls and over the crowd, raining burning plastic on their heads; a deadly scrum forms at the main exit.
Now, all that remained were reporters’ questions and a sickening burntflesh smell when the biting wind shifted to the south. Among the questioners was Whitney Casey, CNN’s youngest reporter, who just hours earlier had exited a Manhattan nightclub following a friend’s birthday celebration.
Dance music was still echoing in her sleep-deprived head when she arrived at a very different nightclub scene in West Warwick. Casey had covered the World Trade Center collapse as a cub reporter on September 11, 2001. From its preternaturally clear day to desperate families in search of the missing, the Station nightclub fire assignment would have eerie parallels to her 9/11 reporting baptism.
It wasn’t long before the sweater and jeans from Casey’s “crash bag” (on hand for just such short-notice call-outs) proved a poor match for New England’s winter. Shivering alongside the yellow tape line, the CNN reporter spotted State Fire Marshal Irving J. “Jesse” Owens huddling with West Warwick fire chief Charles Hall. She heard questions shouted by her fellow reporters:
“Chief, how recently was the club inspected?”
“What was the club’s capacity?”
“Who put that foam up on the walls?”
Neither responded. Nor would anyone in authority answer those and other critical questions for a very long time. State Fire Marshal Owens had the world-weary look of someone who had been investigating fires for thirty years. Thin of hair and pudgy of build, Owens had seen many fatal fires before. But none like this. He had to have heard the reporters’ shouted questions in the same way one hears his doctor prattle on after having first pronounced the word “cancer”—as a faint sound drowned out by the rush of racing thoughts. Owens had a lot on his mind. Ten hours before the fire, he had given an interview to Bryan Rourke, a Providence Journal reporter, on the subject of a recent Chicago nightclub stampede in which twenty-one people had been killed. “It’s very remote something like that would happen here,” opined Owens. Now he wondered whether the phone message he left for Rourke while on his way to the Station conflagration would stop that story from running. “I guess we spoke too soon,” he said in a dejected voice-mail postscript.
Owens had arrived at The Station to find it fully consumed by fire, and triage of survivors already under way. Amid the crackle of flames and din of sirens, his cell phone rang. The caller ID displayed his home number. His wife’s first words were, “Jesse, Chris is missing.” “Who?” “Your nephew, Chris.
He went to The Station last night and they can’t find him. Can you?” Given the stench of death around him, Owens must have thought, “I certainly don’t want to find him here.”
The fire marshal was hardly alone in looking for family. Because video of the fire had been broadcast almost immediately, distraught relatives of Station patrons flocked to the scene when their cell phone calls to loved ones went unanswered. Over the next several days, they would go from hospital to hospital in Providence, Boston, and Worcester, clutching photos for doctors to match to horrifically burned faces. And with each “not here,” the families’ options would shrink.
Even though reporters were kept at a distance from the burnt-out rubble, TV crews had something of an advantage. Television “live” trucks often sport video cameras on their telescoping communication masts, from which their crews can peer down upon “restricted access” scenes. Reporters like CNN’s Casey watched on their monitors as blue-gloved fire investigators combed through what looked, at a distance, like indistinguishable ashes. Had she been allowed closer (or if her truck’s mast camera had a higher resolution) she would have seen those techs bagging and labeling victims’ personal effects and body parts. A glove containing hand bones. A section of scalp, with hair attached. And, over by what remained of the stage, several charred cardboard tubes for pyrotechnic “gerbs”—a kind of heavy-duty sparkler—as well as a homemade stand for positioning them. These were the first of many discoveries that would begin to answer questions in the minds of everyone from Providence to Portugal who had seen the initial video: Why did the fire spread so fast? What was flammable packing foam doing on the walls of a nightclub? How could any thinking person ignite giant sparklers in that firetrap?
Throughout the night of the fire and into the next day, the news media reported body counts like a ghoulish sports score. First thirty-nine, “with fears of many more.” Then fifty, “and climbing.” By 11 a.m., the removal of body bags from what remained of The Station had ceased, with the “final”calculus an astounding ninety-five.
That afternoon, Fire Marshal Owens’s cell phone roused him from his overwhelming fatigue. It was his wife, telling him they’d found his nephew—at Rhode Island Hospital—burned, but alive.
But many more remained missing. Shortly after the video aired, the region’s hospitals began filling with relatives looking for their loved ones. There, smoke-stained survivors attempted to comfort them with information about where a son or daughter was last seen within the club. Other injured Station patrons chose to leave hospitals, untreated, in deference to the more seriously burned in need of urgent care. That night, Kent County Memorial Hospital, closest to the fire site, went through a three-month supply of morphine.
Yet more friends and family members were drawn to the still-smoking remains of the club, where they stood, hugging and weeping. One was Jackie Bernard, forty years old, who stared at the smoldering rubble and cried softly. She had been inside the club with her close friend and co-worker Tina Ayer when fire broke out. Both worked as housekeepers at the Fairfield Inn, where Great White was staying. Tina was still missing.
No one among those gathered at the site took any particular notice of one fireman lingering in the footprint of the burned-out club. “Rocky” was a familiar figure at fire scenes; as the town’s fire marshal, part of his job was investigating the cause and origin of fires there. As the fire marshal’s turnout boots crunched in the ruins, he must have had the appalling realization that the ground beneath him was intermixed with what funeral directors euphemistically call “cremains.” And only he could have known that he was, perhaps, the single person most responsible for this tragedy.
When the claw-armed excavating machine lifted the remaining section of collapsed roof from the club, another grim discovery was made. The count was now ninety-six.
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