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Hell rose from the stage and it wasn't an act

©Associated Press
February 22, 2003

WEST WARWICK, R.I. -- The flames slithering across the ceiling, the churning black smoke that devoured the air in minutes, the burning hair and flesh -- he can't forget any of it. But John Dimeo is tormented more than anything by the shrieks of people trapped inside.

"It's a sound you never want to hear," he said. "It's a difficult thing to know someone is on the other side, and they're dying, and you can't do anything."

Dozens died late Thursday when the racing fire turned a West Warwick nightclub called the Station, 15 miles outside Providence, into a funeral pyre.

More than 250 mostly 30-something music fans were banking on a simple, nostalgic night out of sipping beer and stomping feet to hard rock music. When the band Great White finally hit the stage, the dense crowd hooted its approval, hoisted beers and swayed arms to the throbbing sounds.

As the opening song crescendoed, a sparkling stream of fireworks sprayed upward from the stage. It was tame by today's big-concert standards for special effects, but cast light enough to brighten the darkened room. In seconds, it was very bright -- maybe too bright.

At first, though, it was exciting, even pretty. Some figured it must be part of the show. Others felt their first inkling of discomfort: Were those flames that were licking the walls and ceiling around the stage? Dimeo believes some patrons were drunk by then, adding to the confusion.

"Nobody really thought much of it," said Christopher Travis of Lakeville, Mass. "They just assumed, 'Oh, something caught fire; it's going to get put out.' Nobody came forward with a fire extinguisher."

A startled musician turned around and sprinkled bottled water on the swelling fire, witnesses say. It was useless.

By turns, like birds lifting their heads to an approaching storm, people realized real trouble was afoot. By twos and threes -- then en masse -- they begun rushing toward the front door.

But suffocating smoke was spreading into the room, leaving people gasping for breath. Many couldn't see 5 feet ahead. Doors and windows vanished into the acrid blackness. Flames galloped across the ceiling.

"This place went up like a Fourth of July," said the band's lead singer, Jack Russell.

A stampede pushed harder toward the front door, to screams of "this way!" and "get out!" One man pushed aside a table to clear the path to the doorway, but the crowd backed up in a bottleneck. People began kicking out windows or breaking them with anything at hand.

"People were pulling on people, and nobody cared how many cuts they got, nobody cared about the bruises or burns," said Brian Butler, a local TV cameraman on hand to tape a segment on nightclub dangers in the wake of a deadly stampede earlier in the week at a Chicago club. "They just wanted out of the building."

Panic rippled through the room, and chaos took over. Some stumbled and fell, blocking others. Some tried to leap over, but crashed down on top. "It was like a pig pile, and people were just driving over them," said Dimeo, a sprinkler installer who traveled from nearby Warwick to attend the concert.

Mario Cardillo was lucky, said his father-in-law, Lloyd Powell. Cardillo clambered out a window and then turned back for his wife, Kathy. She was gone.

He screamed her name. She reached a window, too, but was knocked down. Someone stepped on her forehead and back. She got up anyway and escaped.

"She can't close her eyes because that's all she sees -- the smoke and being trampled," her father said.

Some people's coats or hair caught fire. Many slashed their skin at the broken windows, dropping puddles of blood on the streets outside.

"I heard people screaming for their lives. You could smell flesh burning. It was horrible," Travis said.

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