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Saturday, July 26, 2014

Death toll rises in club fire

Saturday, February 22, 2003

WEST WARWICK, R.I. -- Great White was rocking through its first song, "Desert Moon," and the fans were cheering as fireworks sprayed the stage with sparks. They kept cheering even as flames shot toward the ceiling. Within three minutes, many of them were dead.

At least 96 people died in The Station nightclub on Thursday night, burned or crushed in their frantic fight to escape the old wooden building. Nearly 200 more were injured, 35 critically.

Club officials said they had not given the band permission to use pyrotechnics, a claim echoed by at least three other venues where Great White played in the past month. The band disputed the accusations, and Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch said authorities were investigating.

Many concertgoers were caught off-guard as they slowly realized the fire wasn't part of the show. Many were badly burned and others were trampled in the rush to escape, in large part through a single door.

"I never knew a place could burn so fast," said Robin Petrarca, 44, who was roughed up in the scramble to escape. She said the smoke was so thick she couldn't see an exit just 5 feet away.

It was the deadliest U.S. nightclub fire since 165 people were killed at the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Ky., in 1977. It also came less than a week after 21 people were killed in a stampede at a Chicago nightspot.

The capacity of The Station was 300, but the number of victims and survivors indicated more were inside. The death toll rose steadily Friday as firefighters picked through the smoking ruins of the single-story building.

"This building went up fast -- nobody had a chance," said Gov. Don Carcieri, who rushed back to the state from a trip to Florida.

Sifting through rubble

Under the glare of floodlights, a dozen firefighters and other law enforcement officials used rakes to sift through the rubble Friday night as they searched for evidence and belongings of the victims. A corner of the building was still standing, along with the marquee, still advertising Great White's appearance.

Late Friday, the governor said seven of the dead had been identified. No names were released. At hospitals around the region, anguished relatives pleaded for help in finding loved ones they feared were lost in the club.

Patricia Belanger stood trembling outside Rhode Island Hospital, clutching a photo of her daughter, Dina DeMaio, who was working at the club as a waitress to earn some extra money for herself and her 7-year-old son.

Belanger said she had not been able to find her daughter and was unable to tell her grandson about his mother's possible death.

"He knows his mother didn't come back," she said.

The fire was apparently touched off by pyrotechnics moments after the '80s hard-rock band kicked off its show. A TV cameraman who was putting together a story on nightclub safety recorded the unfolding disaster, beginning with the fireworks, followed seconds later by bright orange flames climbing curtains and soundproofing behind the stage. In moments, the stage was enveloped in a bright yellow haze; among those missing late Friday was guitarist Ty Longley.

Lead singer Jack Russell said he started dousing the fire with a water bottle but couldn't put it out. Then all the lights went out.

"All of a sudden I felt a lot of heat," Russell said. "I see the foam's on fire. ... The next thing you know the whole place is in flames."

Some victims trampled

At least 25 bodies were found near the club's front exit. Fire chief Charles Hall said some victims were trampled.

"They tried to go out the same way they came in. That was the problem," Hall said. "They didn't use the other three fire exits."

Fire officials said the club had passed a fire inspection Dec. 31, but didn't have a city permit for pyrotechnics. The building, which is at least 60 years old, was not required to have a sprinkler system because of its small size.

The pyrotechnics were used without permission, said Kathleen Hagerty, an attorney representing club owners Michael and Jeffrey Derderian, who are brothers.

"No permission was ever requested by the band or its agents to use pyrotechnics at The Station, and no permission was ever given," she said.

Russell said the band's manager checked with the club before the show and that the use of pyrotechnics was approved.

Paul Woolnough, president of Great White's management company, also said tour manager Dan Biechele "always checks" with club officials before pyrotechnics are used. Biechele could not be located for comment.

The owner of a well-known New Jersey nightclub said Great White failed to tell him they were using pyrotechnics for a Valentine's Day show.

"Our stage manager didn't even know it until it was done," said Domenic Santana, owner of the Stone Pony in Asbury Park. "My sound man freaked out because of the heat and everything, and they jeopardized the health and the safety of our patrons."

Concert organizers also said Great White used pyrotechnics during a Feb. 7 show at the Pinellas Park Expo Center near Tampa, Fla., and a Feb. 13 show in Allentown, Pa., without discussing it with promoters or the venue.

The Rhode Island show was part of a nationwide tour. Officials at other clubs said Great White asked before using pyrotechnics and complied when they were turned down. One of those venues was the Oxygen Nightclub in Evansville, Ind., where the band played Feb. 3.

The club has ceilings 20 feet tall "but we still did not want to take the chance," club owner JJ Parson said. "We said we'd prefer they not, and they went along. Everything we asked them to do, they'd do."

The governor criticized use of the pyrotechnics, saying it was unwise given the age of the building and the low ceilings inside. "I would say that using pyrotechnics inside that building you were asking for trouble," Carcieri said.

Nearly 190 people were taken to hospitals in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, with burns, broken bones and complications from smoke inhalation. The ages of the victims ranged from the teens to the late 30s.

The governor praised rescue workers for their professionalism at the emotional scene.

"Every time they bring someone out, they stop, take off their helmets, with the chaplain and they are praying over each individual person," Carcieri said.

The worst nightclub fire in the United States came on Nov. 28, 1942, when 492 people died at Boston's Cocoanut Grove nightclub when they couldn't get out of blocked and poorly marked exits.

Early Monday, 21 people were killed and more than 50 were injured in the Chicago melee, which began after a security guard used pepper spray to break up a fight. Mourners started burying those victims Friday.


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