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Beyond grief
Trying to make sense of the Station nightclub fire
BY IAN DONNIS

WEST WARWICK, Rhode Island ó Things like this are supposed to happen somewhere else.

Like Boston, where 492 people died 50 years ago as a result of fire at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub.

Or New York City, where an arson fire claimed 87 lives in 1990 at the Happy Land Social Club.

Or Chicago, where security guards using pepper spray to break up a fight touched off a stampede that killed 21 people a little over two weeks ago.

Something like this wasnít supposed to happen at a modest roadhouse off the beaten path in West Warwick, where the Stationís bookings ó heavy on í80s hard rockers whose day had long since passed and tribute bands who pay homage to AC/DC and Van Halen ó meshed with an old factory town whose commercial fortunes had crested decades earlier. The mingling of small-town patriotism with rock verities was evident in a mural on the side of the club, where icons like Janis Joplin and Ozzy Osbourne were set against the backdrop of an American flag.

But the conflagration came here, in the gritty heart of Rhode Island, with stunning speed and with a staggering impact no one could have anticipated. Of the 300 or so people who were in the Station last Thursday, February 20, nearly a third ó 97 ó lost their lives and most of the rest ó 187 ó were injured, many of them critically, and left to face a long and difficult road to recovery.

It came after weeks in which government pronouncements and color-coded warnings raised anxiety about a threat from abroad. And although this time the cause was wholly different and the toll far smaller, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 provided a familiar frame of reference ó from the hellish quality of the disaster scene and the nightmare of lost and grievously injured loved ones to the heroism displayed by rescuers and the heartening sense of a community coming together in crisis.

There was the only-in-Rhode-Island quality of how the Station was co-owned by Jeff Derderian, a reporter for WPRI-TV (Channel 12), whose cameraman, apparently gathering stock footage for a story about nightclub safety in the aftermath of the fatal Chicago stampede, taped the unexpectedly chilling tableau broadcast over and over on national television. As those at the front of the audience happily raised beers or pointed their hands in the air, singer Jack Russell kicked Great White into its first song, "Desert Moon," jauntily shaking his mike stand from side to side, unaware that sparks from the pyrotechnics display behind him were already sending flames toward the clubís ceiling.

Within just three minutes, fire and acrid, dark smoke engulfed the Station, destroying it, in the fourth-worst nightclub disaster in US history. Stunned Rhode Islanders were left trying to make sense of how a carefree night suddenly turned into the worst disaster in the state since the hurricane of 1938, when 262 people were killed. Although the club had four exits, most patrons were familiar only with the main entrance, leading to a panic in which many people were unable to escape a horrific pile-up near the front door.

The loss of so much life would represent a tragedy anywhere, but it struck especially hard in Rhode Island, the nationís smallest state, where no place is more than an hour away by car and the fire claimed one-tenth of one percent of the stateís population. The stateís typical intrigues ó the recent discovery of a secret taping system at the Providence police station, a battle between the House Speaker and Senate president ó quickly seemed irrelevant.

After the fact, a few things seemed obvious: Great Whiteís pyrotechnic arrangement ó a fan of so-called gerbs, which shot tall cascades of sparks in three different directions behind the band ó was utterly ill-suited for a low-ceilinged club like the Station, where foam soundproofing behind the stage seems to have spread the fire. And whether or not permission was granted for use of the gerbs ó a question disputed by Great White and the Stationís owners ó the professional and legal standards for using fireworks in such a situation, such as surveying the stage area for potential hazards and having a permit, appear to have been given short shrift.

Governor Donald L. Carcieri, facing his first test since taking office in January, spoke for the stateís residents while mustering a steady calm and quiet confidence in daily briefings. The conflagration "shouldnít have happened, didnít need to happen," said Carcieri, who ordered a safety review of smaller venues like the Station and a moratorium on the use of pyrotechnics in such clubs. "Someone made a very, very bad decision."

Part of the speculation centered on whether Great White was trying to recapture its glory days by incorporating elements better suited to an arena than a small club. Russell disbanded the group after a New Yearís Eve gig in 2001, moving away from the kind of hard rock that had given Great White a hit with a cover of Ian Hunterís "Once Bitten, Twice Shy." But by early 2003, Russell had reconstituted Great White with fellow original member Mark Kendall and several newcomers, including guitarist Ty Longley, who perished in the fire. As part of a promotion for the bandís "Play On" tour, which began January 23 in Glendale Heights, Illinois, GWís Web site crowed, "1500 fans in the Chicago House of Blues canít be wrong! This band is the most potent line-up Great White has ever had."

Understandably, the West Warwick fire, coming just four days after 21 were killed in Chicago, has prompted a nationwide focus on nightclub safety. Just as 9/11 caused us to look skyward at every approaching plane in the ensuing weeks, the Station disaster has caused people to take careful note of the entry and exit points of clubs, restaurants, and other public venues.

But Rich Lupo, owner of Lupoís Heartbreak Hotel, one of Rhode Islandís most popular venues for live music, disputes suggestions that rock clubs arenít stringent about safety. "People donít appreciate in general how incredibly strict the fire marshalís office is, and how incredibly strict codes are for us, because we are places of public assembly," he says. "There are all kinds of building codes and fire-preventative codes that we have to obey. We are inspected. We are surprise inspected. And I donít mean to point the finger, but I donít believe what happened in West Warwick could happen at Lupoís. We have a sprinkler and a fire-preventative system linked [to] the fire system." (The Station didnít have a sprinkler system because the building had been built before the adoption of a sprinkler requirement for such structures, and as such was exempt from the regulation.)

There were reports that Great White had recently introduced the use of pyrotechnics without permission at several clubs, including the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Other accounts indicated that Great White didnít use pyro at some other venues after being denied permission. There were reports, too, that other bands, including a Kiss tribute group that played the Station last summer, had used pyrotechnic elements without incident.

But all that was in the past. In the aftermath of a fire that brought so much death and devastation, everything was different.

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Issue Date: February 27 - March 6, 2003
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