RIPR News
10:49 am
Fri February 21, 2003

Rhode Island Nightclub Fire Kills 39

WEST WARWICK, R.I. (AP) – A Rhode Island nightclub erupted into flames during a pyrotechnics display at a rock concert, killing at least 39 people and injuring more than 150 as mobs of concertgoers frantically rushed to escape the raging fire.

At least 39 were confirmed dead, and the number was climbing rapidly as firefighters sifted through the rubble, West Warwick Town Manager Wolfgang Bauer said Friday morning.

"I think it will take a good amount of time before the building can be thoroughly searched and a definite number can be estimated," Bauer said, adding that as many as five or 10 more people could be added to the death toll.

The blaze broke out at about 11 p.m. during the first song of a Great White concert at The Station in West Warwick, about 15 miles southwest of Providence. A fireworks display that was part of the show apparently ignited a substance in the ceiling, and flames quickly engulfed the club.

Hours later, only a blackened shell of the one-story building was left.

"The place went up within a matter of two minutes," witness John Kudryk said.

The fire came just four days after 21 people were killed and more than 50 injured during a stampede in a Chicago nightclub that began when a security guard used pepper spray to break up a fight.

Fire Capt. Russell McGillivray said many of the victims were found in the front door area after apparently becoming trapped trying to escape the fast-spreading flames.

More than 160 people were taken to area hospitals including Rhode Island Hospital in Providence and Kent County Memorial Hospital in nearby Warwick, said Bauer.

Firefighters worked into the morning Friday to pull charred bodies from the building as onlookers watched - worried about missing friends.

"They were completely burned. They had pieces of flesh falling off them," said Michelle Craine of West Warwick, who was waiting to hear about a friend who was missing. "It was the worst thing I've ever seen."

Paul Vanner, the club's sound technician and stage manager, said one person from the band was missing. It was not immediately known how many people attended the concert, however, one witness told The Providence Journal that about 300 people had been inside.

Chaos erupted moments after the fire started. Witnesses said dozens of people dashed toward the door, and some of those who escaped were later seen staggering into a triage center. Rescuers carried dozens of people on stretchers.

Hundreds of firefighters and police from across the region and dozens of ambulances were on the scene. Rescuers were pulling badly injured victims from the fire as ladder trucks poured water over the flaming skeleton of the building.

"It was calm at first, everyone thought it was part of the act," said John DiMeo, who was sitting at the bar near the front door when the fire started. "It happened so fast."

Jack Russell, the lead singer of Great White, told WJAR-TV he checked with the club's manager before the show and the band's use of pyrotechnics was approved. He said he felt the heat of the flames while on stage.

"This place went up like the Fourth of July," he said.

At a news conference, Bauer said an investigation was under way to see if the club had a license for fireworks.

"Something went off with a lot of heat and caused some material, whatever was on the ceiling or in the vicinity, to go off," he said. "And I assume there was smoke, dense smoke somebody told me, and fire."

Rhode Island Gov. Don Carcieri, who was in Stuart, Fla., to attend a governors' conference, said he planned to return to the state Friday morning.

"Our hearts go out to all of them. Our hearts and prayers to all of the families that have been impacted by this. ... There's no words to describe," Carcieri said. "This is a terrible tragedy. It should not have occurred. Why it occurred is one of the questions that needs to be answered."

Great White is a heavy metal band whose hits include "Once Bitten, Twice Shy" and "Rock Me." The band emerged in the Los Angeles metal scene of the late 1980s, selling 6 million albums and earning a Grammy nomination in 1990.

They continued to tour and make albums in recent years, maintaining a strong allegiance of fans from their glory days of the 1980s.