Out of the Ashes
11/03/2003 at 01:00 AM EST
Some of the survivors of the Rhode Island nightclub fire felt compelled to gather again in—of all places—a dark and noisy bar. Even more surprising was the band they came to see: Great White, the very group whose pyrotechnics display triggered one of history's deadliest nightclub fires only seven months before. Among the 20 survivors at the Sept. 27 show in Allentown, Pa., was Linda Fisher, a Sears sales rep, who was invited onstage to sing a poignant ballad with the band. Fisher, 34, wore a sleeveless shirt, exposing her badly burned arms and hands. "I'm not angry, but I did want to show them my scars," she says. "I wanted them to see what happened to me."
So goes the controversial comeback of Great White, on the road again after their Feb. 20 concert in Rhode Island's the Station turned into an inferno that killed 100 fans and injured nearly 200 more. The heavy-metal band, which lost its guitarist Ty Longley to the fire, is donating 100 percent of its proceeds after expenses to victims and their families. Since July they have played more than 30 dates and raised about $60,000 for the Station Family Fund. "We lost a hundred friends, and they weren't just ticket stubs to us," says lead singer Jack Russell, 42. "We're not trying to revitalize our career. We need to help our fans."
Russell and guitarist Mark Kendall, the only surviving members on the tour (two others declined to take part and were replaced), keep expenses low by traveling in a cramped van instead of a bus, staying in cheap hotels and accepting only a fraction of proceeds to pay for their living costs. Bandmates since 1977, they seem genuinely haunted by their role in the fire. "I had no intention of ever playing again," says Kendall, 46. "But hiding out would just be covering our asses. Putting the victims first is the right thing to do."
Not everyone is happy to hear Great White is touring again. A planned show in Weymouth, Mass., only 60 miles from the site of the fire in West Warwick, R.I., was scrapped after protests from dozens of survivors. "They don't deserve applause and people dancing to their music," says Nancy Noyes, 42, a former housecleaner who suffered second-and third-degree burns on 25 percent of her body and spent 10 weeks in a hospital, two of them in the same room as Linda Fisher. "It made me sick to my stomach to hear Linda went onstage with the band. I would never go see them again because there was such severe stupidity involved."
Long past its '80s heyday but still popular with a loyal core of fans, Great White had just started playing for a crowd of 350 at the Feb. 20 show when a blast of fireworks onstage apparently ignited a soundproofing foam on the wall. Within minutes flames engulfed the 2,500-sq.-ft. club. "I felt a heat I'd never felt before," says Russell, who was pulled out a back door. "When I looked back in, I couldn't see anything but black smoke."
After the tragedy, Kendall saw four different therapists but could not shake his anger and depression. "A part of my husband was lost in the fire as well," says his wife, Bridget. "He became unresponsive and distant." The band began touring again in July once they found a charity that delivered money directly to the victims; so far the funds have gone toward groceries, mortgage payments and, for one badly burned man, an air-conditioning system. "I saw the same pain in Jack's eyes that I experienced myself," says Victoria Potvin, a survivor and the Station Family Fund's president. "He lived through the same glimpse of hell we all did."
Others believe the band is merely posturing. "They think this is going to make them look better before the inevitable indictment," says Julie Mellini, a Station bartender who lost several close friends. A Rhode Island grand jury investigating the fire has yet to charge anyone, though more than two dozen plaintiffs have filed civil suits against Great White, the Station's owners and the show's sponsors, including Anheuser-Busch.
With a grand jury decision still several weeks away, Great White plans to keep touring. 'I' don't think about the legal stuff," says Russell. "Whatever happens to me happens to me. That just isn't my focus right now." The band is booking more dates and, as they have all along, will ask for 100 seconds of silence at each show. "Some people understand, some people don't," says Russell. "All we can do is play music."
Champ Clark in Palm Desert, Calif., and Tom Duffy in Rhode Island