The Station nightclub fire was the fourth deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history, killing 100 people. The fire began at 11:07 PM EST, on Thursday, February 20, 2003, at The Station, a glam metal and rock and roll themed nightclub located at 211 Cowesett Avenue inWest Warwick, Rhode Island.
The fire was caused by pyrotechnics set off by the tour manager of the evening's headlining band, Great White, which ignited flammable sound insulation foam in the walls and ceilings surrounding the stage. A fast-moving fire engulfed the club in 5½ minutes. In addition to the 100 fatalities, some 230 people were injured and another 132 escaped uninjured. Video footage of the fire shows its ignition, rapid growth, the billowing smoke that quickly made escape impossible, and the exit blockage that further hindered evacuation.
The fire started just seconds into headlining band Great White's opening song, "Desert Moon," when pyrotechnics set off by the band'stour manager, Daniel Biechele, ignited flammable acoustic foam on both sides of the drummer's alcove at the back of the stage. The pyrotechnics were gerbs, cylindrical devices that produce a controlled spray of sparks. Biechele used three gerbs set to spray sparks 15 feet (4.6 m) for 15 seconds. Two gerbs were at 45-degree angles, with the middle one pointing straight up. The flanking gerbs became the principal cause of the fire. The foam was in two layers, with highly flammable urethane foam over polyethylene foam, the latter being difficult to ignite but releasing much more heat once ignited by the less dense urethane.
The flames were at first thought to be part of the act; only as the fire reached the ceiling and smoke began to billow did people realize it was uncontrolled. Twenty seconds after the pyrotechnics ended, the band stopped playing and lead singer Jack Russell calmly remarked into the microphone, "Wow... this ain't good." In less than a minute, the entire stage was engulfed in flames, with most of the band members and entourage fleeing for the west exit by the stage.
By this time, the nightclub's fire alarm had been activated, and, although there were four possible exits, most people naturally headed for the front door through which they had entered. The ensuing stampede led to a crush in the narrow hallway leading to that exit, quickly blocking the exit completely and resulting in numerous deaths and injuries among the patrons and staff. 462 people were in attendance, even though the club's official licensed capacity was 404. 100 lost their lives, and about half were injured, either from burns,smoke inhalation, or trampling. Among those who perished in the fire were Great White's lead guitarist, Ty Longley, and the show'semcee, WHJY DJ Mike "The Doctor" Gonsalves. A survivor later stated that she and her fiancee had tried to escape via the west exit, but were stopped by a bouncer stating that that door was "for the band only."
The fire, from its inception, was caught on videotape by cameraman Brian Butler for WPRI-TV of Providence, and the beginning of the tape was released to national news stations. Butler was there for a planned piece on nightclub safety being reported by Jeffrey Derderian, a WPRI news reporter who was also a part-owner of The Station. WPRI-TV would later be cited for conflict of interest in having a reporter do a report concerning his own property. The report had been inspired by the E2 nightclub stampede in Chicago that had claimed 21 lives only three days earlier. At the scene of the fire, Butler gave this account of the tragedy:
"...It was that fast. As soon as the pyrotechnics stopped, the flame had started on the egg-crate backing behind the stage, and it just went up the ceiling. And people stood and watched it, and some people backed off. When I turned around, some people were already trying to leave, and others were just sitting there going, 'Yeah, that's great!' And I remember that statement, because I was, like, this is not great. This is the time to leave.
At first, there was no panic. Everybody just kind of turned. Most people still just stood there. In the other rooms, the smoke hadn't gotten to them, the flame wasn't that bad, they didn't think anything of it. Well, I guess once we all started to turn toward the door, and we got bottle-necked into the front door, people just kept pushing, and eventually everyone popped out of the door, including myself.
That's when I turned back. I went around back. There was no one coming out the back door anymore. I kicked out a side window to try to get people out of there. One guy did crawl out. I went back around the front again, and that's when you saw people stacked on top of each other, trying to get out of the front door. And by then, the black smoke was pouring out over their heads.
I noticed when the pyro stopped, the flame had kept going on both sides. And then on one side, I noticed it come over the top, and that's when I said, 'I have to leave.' And I turned around, I said, 'Get out, get out, get to the door, get to the door!' And people just stood there.
There was a table in the way at the door, and I pulled that out just to get it out of the way so people could get out easier. And I never expected it take off as fast as it did. It just—it was so fast. It had to be two minutes tops before the whole place was black smoke."
Thousands of mourners attended a memorial service at St. Gregory the Great Church in Warwick on February 24, 2003, to remember those lost in the fire. Following the tragedy,Governor Donald Carcieri declared a moratorium on pyrotechnic displays at venues that hold fewer than 300 people.
Five months after the fire, Great White started a benefit tour, saying a prayer at the beginning of each concert for the friends and families touched by that fateful night and giving a portion of the proceeds to the Station Family Fund. The band said they would never play the song "Desert Moon" again. "I don't think I could ever sing that song again," said lead singer and founder Jack Russell. Guitarist Mark Kendall stated, "We haven't played that song. Things that bring back memories of that night we try to stay away from. And that song reminds us of that night. We haven't played it since then and probably never will." The band has since resumed playing the song.
The fire was the deadliest in the United States since the 1977 Southgate, Kentucky, Beverly Hills Supper Club fire that claimed 165 lives. The worst nightclub fire occurred on November 28, 1942, in Boston at the Cocoanut Grove, where 492 died after paper decorations caught fire. The Rhythm Night Club Fire in Natchez, Mississippi, claimed the lives of approximately 209 persons during a dance on April 23, 1940. The Station fire exceeded the death toll of 87 in the March 25, 1990 Happyland Fire in the Bronx, New York City.
The site of the fire was cleared, and a multitude of crosses were placed as memorials, left by loved ones of the deceased. Surviving family members have announced their intention to acquire the site and erect a permanent memorial.
On May 20, 2003, nondenominational services began to be held at the site of the fire on a monthly basis. Family members and friends gathered to memorialize their loved ones. In June 2003, the Station Fire Memorial Foundation was formed with the purpose of purchasing the property, building and maintaining a memorial. The Foundation continues to hold yearly services on the site, near the anniversary of the fire.
The owner of the site, Ray Villanova, is donating the land for a permanent memorial.
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