At least 96 people were killed and authorities expect the number to rise as they investigate a fire that engulfed a Rhode Island nightclub Thursday night. More than 180 people suffered injuries that ranged from smoke inhalation to severe burning.
The Station, in West Warwick, about 15 miles southwest of Providence, caught fire around 11 p.m. as a result of a pyrotechnic mishap during the first song by heavy metal band Great White, best known for their 1989 hit “Once Bitten Twice Shy.” A spark or flame apparently ignited foam soundproofing or insulation on the wall behind the stage and spread throughout the venue within minutes, leaving little more than one wall standing by the time firefighters extinguished the blaze a few hours later.
At least 187 people were taken to medical centers, many with severe burns and others injured as a result of being trampled as they attempted to exit. Twenty-five of those dead were found near the front door, and dozens were unaccounted for in the early morning hours after the fire.
“They were completely burned,” West Warwick resident Michelle Craine told the Associated Press. Craine was one of the many people still awaiting news on missing friends feared dead in the blaze.
A witness told The Providence Journal about 300 people attended the concert, though authorities said the Station was not at capacity. Among those who were still missing in the hours immediately following the disaster were Great White guitar player Ty Longley and a local radio DJ who introduced the band onstage. The exact number of people in the club is still being determined.
“It went up like a Christmas tree,” Great White singer Jack Russell told The Providence Journal. “I was trying to put it out with a bottle of water. I turned around and the building was engulfed. My soundman is injured. I’m on my way to the hospital.”
Approximately 100 people were ushered out of the club by rescuers. Bodies were still being discovered and taken away more than 12 hours after the fire started, as pieces of the collapsed structure were removed piecemeal.
The Station disaster is the worst loss of life to occur at a U.S. rock show, far eclipsing the stampede that occurred at a 1979 Who concert in Cincinnati, which claimed 11. There have been other nightclub disasters, however, that have been worse: Four hundred ninety-two people perished in 1942 when the Boston club Cocoanut Grove caught fire, and 167 died in 1977 at the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Kentucky.
Although fire officials estimated that the blaze swept through the club in just three minutes, lives may have been saved had people immediately recognized the danger. When the wall behind the performing band caught fire and flames crept toward the ceiling, many members of the crowd thought the display was part of Great White’s stage show. Only when a significant portion of the wall was ablaze did panic ensue.
“I don’t think this is supposed to be like that,” one employee of the club told another. “We need to leave.”
Thick black smoke then consumed the room and the lights went out, causing a chaotic rush toward the one exit most patrons used to enter. Although fire officials noted that all four of the venue’s doors were working, many people attempted to climb through broken windows to escape. The band fled through the back door.
“I ended up walking out the back door, by the kitchen door,” the employee also said. “I thought [my co-worker] was right with me, but she wasn’t.”
Crews were still dousing the flames at 1:50 a.m.
Hundreds of firefighters and police officers, and dozens of EMS workers from neighboring areas as far as Massachusetts, rushed to the scene, and rescuers were pulling injured victims to a makeshift triage area set up across the street from the venue. From there they were taken to one of at least six hospitals by buses and ambulances, and the more severely burned were transported by helicopters.
Eighty-one people sought treatment at Rhode Island Hospital in Providence; 10 of which were transferred to Massachusetts General Hospital and the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. Of the 71 admitted, 25 were in critical condition. Eighteen patients had to be intubated and put on a respirator to assist breathing. The severity of the burns ranged from 2 percent of a victim’s body to 50 percent. Nearly all those treated suffered from smoke inhalation.
Five firefighters received medical treatment and were later released.
In a press conference Friday afternoon (February 21), hospital surgeons said those in the worst condition had a 50 to 60 percent survival rate. As of Friday afternoon, no one had died in a hospital.
After the initial burn treatment of cleaning the damaged skin area and rehydrating the patients to prevent kidney failure, doctors will be administering antibiotics and watching for infection, a dangerous and possibly deadly repercussion of any major burn. Rehabilitation for some victims may take months.
Identifying the victims and notifying their families is the primary directive for authorities. Police have been examining the license plates of nearby parked cars for possible clues to those still missing.
Great White’s Russell told reporters on the scene that the band’s use of pyrotechnics was approved by the club.
“My tour manager deals with that. We always have permission because we never just go into a place. … We only do it when it’s safe. If he says, ‘Yeah, it’s safe,’ then we’ll use it. If he says, ‘No, you can’t use it here, the walls are flammable or the ceiling’s flammable,’ then we won’t use it. It’s not a big deal.”
The Station’s owners and a stage technician, however, claimed to be unaware that any such special effects would be employed.
“At no time did either owner have prior knowledge that pyrotechnics were going to be used by the band Great White,” read a statement issued by Kathleen M. Hagerty, Esq., an attorney representing the Station owners. “No permission was ever requested by the band or its agents to use pyrotechnics at the Station and no permission was ever given.”
Great White performed at New Jersey’s Stone Pony on Valentine’s Day, and in a press conference on Friday, owner Dominic Santana said the band used stage pyro without permission.
“Not once were we told that there were going to be any pyrotechnics whatsoever,” Santana said. “I was in the back office [when the flashpots and sparklers] went off, and heard through the radio communications, ‘What the hell is going on?’
“So we did not know that they were going to have pyrotechnics or we would not have allowed them to have pyrotechnics.”
A multi-agency investigation involving state and local police and fire marshals, and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, is underway, in the hopes of finding why the fire occurred, and who, if anyone, is liable. Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch said the culprit(s) may face criminal charges.
“You had no business setting off pyrotechnics in that building, as far as I can say,” observed Gov. Donald Carcieri, who arrived on the scene from Florida Friday morning. “So somebody made a bad decision, and we don’t know whether they were permitted to or not.”
Venues require a certificate of competency and a permit to use pyrotechnics indoors. A fire official told CNN that the Station applied for a permit to use pyrotechnics, but it had not been granted.
“People were here to dance and enjoy themselves,” said Fire Marshall Jesse Owens. “Somebody made a decision to set off those pyrotechnic displays, and it started the fire. It didn’t need to happen. It shouldn’t have happened.”
The Station was not equipped with sprinklers, though West Warwick Fire Chief Charles Hall said that based on the venue’s square footage, sprinklers were not required.
Family members can call (401) 462-7111 for victim information.
The tragedy struck just four days after a disaster in a Chicago club, E2, left 21 people dead and more than 50 injured. That incident was the result of a mass rush to flee the nightclub after a security guard used pepper spray to dispel a fight.
[This story was updated on 02.21.03 at 5:49 p.m. ET.]