Gone in a Flash
03/10/2003 at 01:00 AM EST
MICHAEL RICARDI, 19, was at the club with his friend James Gahan, 21; both were students at Nichols College in Dudley, Mass.: After the pyro went off, a foam insulation backdrop caught fire. It looked like it was part of the show at first. Then the bassist looked back and stopped playing and went through the side door; the guitarist dropped his guitar and ran. Then [frontman] Jack Russell looked and said, "This isn't good." From there it was just total mayhem.
LISA SHEA, 31, manager of a Fashion Bug retail store, was at the Station with a friend: I thought the fire was part of the act. I said to my friend, "Be calm." But then, when the top of the front of the stage started flaming, I said, "No, something is going on." At the front door it looked like an arrow of people—everyone smushed in. I said, "We'll never get over there." The house lights were on, but then the fire got worse and they went out. When that happened and the smoke got worse, everybody panicked. I fell to the floor. I was panicking, but I yelled, "Can everyone just calm down?"
ERIN MARIE PUCINO, 25, a secretary from North Kingston, R.I.: The flames just started moving so fast. You could hear people screaming and stuff and could feel people starting to crowd closer and push a little bit, and we got about two to three feet from the door, and that's when everybody fell over in front of us. Then we fell over them and people fell over on top of us. The smoke just started surrounding us. I kept trying to put my jacket and sweater over my mouth, but the smoke came right through.
CHRIS TRAVIS, 37, a construction worker from Lakeville, Mass., was inside the club: I had confidence the fire was under control and someone would put it out. But then I'm watching and notice nobody's going at it with a fire extinguisher.
PETER GINAITT, 42, rescue captain in the Warwick Fire Department, who was on the scene in a matter of minutes: [On the video at first] people were still standing there sort of like, "Wow, this is cool. I've never seen anything like this!" I triaged almost every one of those people, and alcohol was definitely a factor in slowing their reactions. It was a nightclub, and they were there to have a good time and have a few drinks, but it was obvious to me because you could smell it. In their actions alone you could tell it.
MICHAEL RICARDI: The place was just pitch-black with smoke. I held on to Jim as long as I could, but then within seconds black smoke impaired everything. I ended up getting forced along with the crowd. I thought I was still holding onto Jim, but I don't even know if my feet were touching the ground. [James Gahan was among the dead.]
LISA SHEA: People were walking on my back and my head. The black smoke was everywhere, and I just thought, "I'm going to die here." It was like Judgment Day for us. Then I thought of my mother and got the will to get up and yelled, "Will everyone get off of me." People were screaming. I got up and put my hand on the person in front of me. That person moved and I saw a light. It was a window, so I leaped out. People told me that falling on the ground was the best thing to happen because the smoke is thicker high up and you can breathe better on the ground.
CHRIS TRAVIS: Smoke filled the place within 30 seconds, from ceiling to floor. Within two minutes the building lost power, so no lights or exit signs were lit up. I got knocked down, and when I did, I lost my sense of direction. I couldn't remember where the exit was. And it was like being blind—I couldn't even see my hand in front of my face. People were tripping and falling on top of me. I had no idea which way to go, but I knew if I stayed there I was going to die. I decided to follow in the direction of the people who were tripping over me. So I pulled my jacket over my head so I could breathe and walked on my hands and knees. Finally I felt wood and thought it might be the bar. Then I fell right out the door. You couldn't even tell the door was wide open, it was so pitch-black.
ERIN MARIE PUCINO: When we fell, we were halfway in and half out the door. Two girls who were standing on the ground in front of the steps were trying to pull me out. They just didn't have enough leverage. They kept saying, "Don't worry, we're going to get you out." But my legs were under so many people that they just couldn't.
MICHAEL RICARDI suffered second-degree burns on his head and upper body: I went out a window next to people who were jammed in the doorway. Then I ran across the street and buried myself in a snowbank. But the firefighters told me not to go in the snow because my burns might get infected.
CHRIS TRAVIS: I could see people throwing anything they could through the windows, trying to get out and jumping. There were people covered in blood and on fire, clothes burned and skin just melting and hanging. People were running out of the main entrance in a ball of fire. They were trying to roll in the snow.
ERIN MARIE PUCINO: As those two girls were trying to pull me out, this man on the steps grabbed my arms and kept trying to pull. I said, "Please keep pulling, I think I'm moving." And he kept pulling and pulling, and then he actually did pull me out of the pile—right before the flames started coming through the door.
MARIO GIAMEI, 38, had worked as a bouncer and doorman at the Station off and on for years: When I got out of the club and I looked up and saw the flames start to shoot up, I shook my head and said, "Wow, I can't believe this." I knew at least half of the people who died. I didn't know most of them by name, but I knew their faces because that's how the club was—it was like a family.
STEPHEN EARLEY, 46, an artist, stopped by to offer assistance: I could hear people inside screaming. People outside were burnt black, and I was trying to sit and pray with them while they got the rescue squads. Suddenly I came across my sister Sharon, except I didn't recognize her. She ran towards me, and I was thinking, "Oh my God, who's this?" It was her, she was on fire, burning. I almost dropped dead because of the shock. I couldn't believe it. She was smoldering and she had burning pieces in her hair.
SHARON WILSON, 42, Earley's sister, had been at the club with her boyfriend Bob Cripe, 39, and friend Bonnie Hamelin, 27, who is missing. She suffered second-and third-degree burns as well as nerve damage from being trampled: When my brother came up, I said, "What the hell are you doing here?" I was amazed at the things I saw in there. I didn't care about my burns because I was just lucky to be alive.
JUDY O'BRIEN, 50, happened to be driving near the Station, where she knew her son Robert Reisner, 29, a school bus driver, had gone to hear the music: The building was totally engulfed when I got there. There were fire engines and people looking for their loved ones. When you are thinking, "Where is my son?" you don't even really know what's happening around you. They let us into the Cowesett Inn, across from the Station, and we just waited there. I had some hope. At that point they didn't know who was taken to the hospitals. All they could tell us was a lot of people had been transported. It was too chaotic to know what was what.
PETER GINAITT: The victims were all beside themselves. They knew they were hurt, they knew they were severely burned. But they were incredible people. I had to get down, tell them who I was, tell them what I was there to do and explain to them, "I know you're hurt, I know you're burned but I have to look further. Are you okay?" And 80 percent of them were like, "Look, don't forget me—I know you won't—but go look for more people and do whatever you have to do, but just come back to me."
JIMMY PAOLUCCI, 41, the owner of the Cowesett Inn, immediately offered up his restaurant as a triage center and was widely credited for helping comfort the injured: The first guy in was in his underwear. His clothes either burned off or he took them off. He was saying, "Take other people first." He was very upset, shaking and dumping buckets of water over his head. As the stretcher was coming in to move people out, he pointed over to a girl and said, "Why don't you take her first?" The girl was lying on the floor. You could see the pain he was in, shaking. His face was very red, he had blisters on his shoulders and arms.
PETER GINAITT: I knew the ones who were hurting the worst—I don't want to say that I had less concern for them—but I knew that they had less serious burns because they still had nerve endings. It was the ones that have no pain, that are just sitting there in a daze, that have had their nerve endings burnt—those are the ones that I've got to get out first. The skin burns aren't always the issue either. It's the inhalation burns. So I would look at their faces, and if their hair was burnt off their head and they have facial burns, then you know they have taken in that 1000° or 1200° heat, so they actually have singed lungs. Those are the people who, even though they are breathing right now, in 20 minutes they are going to have respiratory distress, and in 30 minutes they are going to have to be intubated in order to breathe.
Within minutes, towns from all over Rhode Island, as well as neighboring areas of Connecticut and Massachusetts, had begun dispatching ambulances and emergency equipment. Five helicopters were used to airlift the most seriously injured victims.
DR. MICHAEL DACEY, 38, was summoned to Kent County Memorial Hospital, where he is director of the intensive care unit: I gave more morphine in that first three hours than I had given in the last six months. You couldn't move some people from the stretchers to the treatment bed because they were in so much pain.
PETER GINAITT: I found people in the restaurant lying all over. I walked by and I found legs coming out of a coatroom, and I turned on the light, and the face was totally burned. The guy's adrenaline had carried him across the street, but once he walked inside, down he went. There were people who got out of the Station uninjured. They asked me what they could do to help, and I said, "Listen, just go into the triage area and make a friend. You've got to find somebody who's alone, make friends with them. Don't leave them. These people have to know that they are not being abandoned." I had half a dozen people who did that, and through the course of the next half hour five nurses showed up. They were people that just drove by. They were awesome. When you consider the rescue and medical effort, everything went so right. A tremendous number of people showed up to give aid. It worked.
JUDY O'BRIEN: My son Rob was one of the first seven people identified. The person from the Red Cross sat us down and told all of us on Saturday morning at about 9. It was absolutely terrible. You always have it in your mind that maybe they are wrong, even though they tell you that it was confirmed. Even now I wonder that maybe they were wrong and they are going to call and say he is in the hospital or they made a mistake or something. Right afterward one of the ladies from my church who is a therapist came right over and she talked to us for a couple of hours about grief and how you should try to hold onto the good things and not just focus on this.
Among the dead was Great White guitarist Ty Longley, 31, whose mother, MARY PAT FREDERICKSEN, 53, fondly recalled him as a youngster: He could cry at the drop of a hat. I called him an old soul because he was so spiritual. Whenever Christmas happened, he cried when he got his presents, he would weep with happiness. He would always write Santa Claus a thank-you note.
DR. MICHAEL DACEY: I grew up five minutes from here. It's a tight-knit community. Everybody knows everybody. Some people practice medicine in a detached fashion, but you can't do that here. The people who you treat are your neighbors, friends, people you know from Little League. There was a time during those four hours when everyone quietly said to themselves that if we had a say, nobody else was going to die. I felt my whole career was preparation for this one night.
CHRIS TRAVIS: It was said it took about three minutes for the building to go up in flames, and I'm amazed because it felt like an eternity. When the roof collapsed and the walls were falling in, I was just thinking about all the people still trapped inside. What an awful way to go. I thought, "How the heck did I get out?" I had all the odds against me--I was far into the club, away from the exits, there was all this black smoke and so many other people trying to get out.
JUDY O'BRIEN: You wonder why it happened and if he suffered. It's ugly the thoughts that go through your head. Rob was an all-around good guy. The bus company loved him. When he was on his way home from work, he used to come by in the morning. He'd always bring me an iced coffee, every single day he'd bring me one home on his break. He'd come home and chat, and we'd kind of get caught up on things. I had to pick out a casket for my son today. When you pick out a crib, it's life. When you pick out a casket to put your child in, it's the end. It's horrible. It's not fair.
Reported by: Kathy Ehrich, Tom Duffy, Eric Francis, Diane Herbst and Anne Driscoll in West Warwick