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Nightclub inferno claims at least 96

Flames tear through a Rhode Island concert hall minutes after a rock band begins its show with fireworks. Nearly 200 are hurt.

[AP photo]
Little of the Station remained standing Friday, as firefighters poked through the ruins searching for victims. Because of its size, the concert hall wasn't required to have a sprinkler system. The club's owners say they weren't told fireworks would be a part of Thursday's show.

©Associated Press
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 at the Station on Thursday night, burned or crushed in their frantic fight to escape the old wooden building. Nearly 200 were injured, 35 critically.

Club officials said they had not given the band permission to use fireworks, a claim echoed by at least three other venues where Great White played in the past month, including the Pinellas Park Expo Center. 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.

"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 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.

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.

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.

Authorities warned it could take time to identify the victims. 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 waiter to earn 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 fireworks moments after the '80s hard-rock band kicked off its show. A TV cameraman doing 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."

[AP, Times art]
Sources: Associated Press; ESRI

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 fireworks. The building, which is at least 60 years old, was not required to have a sprinkler system because of its small size.

The fireworks were used without permission, said Kathleen Hagerty, a lawyer 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 fireworks was approved. Paul Woolnough, president of Great White's management company, also said tour manager Dan Biechele "always checks" with club officials before fireworks are used. Biechele could not be found 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 fireworks during a Feb. 7 show at the Pinellas Park Expo Center and a Feb. 13 show in Allentown, Pa., without discussing it with promoters or the venue.

Nearly 190 people were taken to hospitals in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, with burns, broken bones and complications from smoke inhalation. Victims ranged in age from 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.

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