Survivors Reflect On Anniversary Of Rhode Island Club Fire

Great White frontman makes radio appearance to speak about tragedy.

On February 20, 2003, a fire raged through a Rhode Island

nightclub and ultimately claimed 100 lives. A year later, survivors, their families and the local community are pausing to reflect on the tragedy.

The inferno began during a performance by Great White at the Station in West Warwick. The band's pyrotechnics ignited foam insulation on the wall and the club was consumed by flame within minutes (see "At Least 96 Dead At Rock Show Fire").

Governor Don Carcieri spoke at a ceremony in West Warwick on Thursday to honor the memory of those who perished as well as those who struggle to continue in the aftermath of the blaze. Firemen and paramedics who had been called to the scene rang a bell 100 times to commemorate those who lost their lives. Organizers strung paper butterflies in rows above the assembled crowd as a symbol of transformation. Carcieri said that a butterfly garden would be built at Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence in tribute to those affected by the fire.

Also on Thursday, Great White singer Jack Russell talked to New Bedford, Massachusetts, radio station WKKB-FM and made some of his most revealing comments to date about the inferno. He restated his claim that the band received permission from Station owners Jeffrey and Michael Derderian to use pyro, even though a government permit for their use was never acquired. He contended that the Derderians, who are both facing charges of involuntary manslaughter (see "Great White Manager, Club Owners Hit With Criminal Charges"), later lied to officials when asked about their communication with the band.

"You play these places every single year. That's your bread and butter," Russell said. "Why would you go somewhere and do something that's going to piss somebody off so they're not going to let you play there next year? That's just bad business. I understand why they denied [giving permission], you know what I mean. I could see them trying to cover their ass. But, I mean, something this big, you got to stand up and take your lumps."

Flashing back to the night of the fire, Russell said he first knew there was a problem when he felt heat on his back, adding that the pyrotechnic "gerbs" Great White used fired off cold sparks. But he greatly underestimated the severity of the situation.

"I turned around and saw the corners of the wall on fire and I'm thinking, 'This isn't good,' " he said. "So, I'm looking around for a fire extinguisher, and there wasn't any there. I figured someone would come and start spraying it out. Stupid me, I'm sitting there trying to throw water on it from my water bottle. And then I was actually walking over to move [guitarist] Mark [Kendall's] amp out away from the wall because I was waiting for someone to come up with a fire extinguisher."

Even as the flames rose and the club started clearing out, Russell and his bandmates didn't anticipate anyone would get hurt, let alone killed. "The flames were only about a foot high," he said. "I was thinking, OK, a fire extinguisher and it's done. The next thing I remember, I called my wife on the cell phone, and I said, 'Honey, there's been a fire. I think we might lose our equipment.' We had no idea how extreme it was going to go."

Great White guitarist Ty Longley was among those killed in the fire (see "Guitarist Ty Longley Among 97 Dead In Great White Club Fire").

Additional memorials and fund-raisers are scheduled to continue throughout the weekend. On Friday (February 20), St. Ann Church held a mass for victims and their families at noon, and a memorial service is scheduled for 9:30 p.m. at the Station site. Also on Friday, the Stadium Theatre Performing Arts Center will stage a performance of "They Walk Among Us," a one-act play by 18-year-old Nick O'Neill, who was the youngest victim of the Station fire.

WKKB-FM will operate in a pay-for-play format all weekend, meaning that listeners who pledge $10 or more to the Station Family Fund will get to hear their requests on the air. A variety of cover bands are scheduled to perform benefit shows at local clubs on Friday and Saturday.

To date, no marquee acts have staged benefits to aid survivors or victims' families.