A West Warwick, R.I., nightclub erupted in a raging fire during a rock band Great White’s pyrotechnics display last night (Feb. 20), killing at nearly 100 people and injuring more than 180 others as frantic mobs rushed to escape. Officials from the Station club said the special effects were used without permission. The death toll rose as firefighters searched through the charred shell of the single-story wood building. Gov. Don Carcieri said the number of dead had reached 95 by this afternoon.
“This building went up fast,” Carcieri said. “Nobody had a chance.” The fire came less than a week after 21 people were killed in a stampede at a Chicago nightspot.
Great White had just started playing when giant pyrotechnic sparklers on stage began shooting up and ignited the ceiling above them and soundproofing near the stage. Some in the crowd said they thought it was part of the act, but the fire quickly spread through the low-ceilinged building, filling it with thick, black smoke.
The entire club was engulfed in flames within three minutes, Fire Chief Charles Hall said. Capacity at the Station was 300, but Hall said fewer people than that were inside the building.
Hall said the club recently passed a fire inspection, but didn’t have a city permit for pyrotechnics. The building, which is at least 60 years old, was not required to have a sprinkler system because of its small size. The pyrotechnics were used without permission from the club, said Kathleen Hagerty, a lawyer representing club owners Michael and Jeffrey Derderian.
“No permission was ever requested by the band or its agents to use pyrotechnics at the Station, and no permission was ever given,” she said.
The band’s singer, Jack Russell, said its manager checked with the club before the show and the use of pyrotechnics was approved. And Paul Woolnough, president of Great White’s management company, said tour manager Dan Biechele “always checks” with club officials before pyrotechnics are used.
“I’m not going to reply to those allegations, but I do know that the club would have been informed, as they always are,” Woolnough said. Biechele could not immediately be located for comment.
However, the owner of a well-known New Jersey nightclub said Great White failed to tell him they were using pyrotechnics for a concert there a week ago. “Our stage manager didn’t even know it until it was done,” said Domenic Santana, owner of the Stone Pony in Asbury Park. “My sound man freaked out because of the heat and everything, and they jeopardized the health and the safety of our patrons.”
Most of the bodies were found near the Station’s front exit, some of them burned and others dead from smoke inhalation. Hall also said some appeared to have been trampled in the rush to escape. “They tried to go out the same way they came in. That was the problem,” Hall said. “They didn’t use the other three fire exits.”
More than 160 people were taken to area hospitals, Bauer said. Many were taken to Rhode Island Hospital and 38 remained there Friday, 14 of them in critical condition with severe burns and suffering from smoke inhalation. The ages of the victims ranged from the teens to the late 30s.
“All of a sudden I felt a lot of heat,” said Russell, the band’s singer. “I see the foam’s on fire … The next thing you know the whole place is in flames.” He said he started dousing the fire with a water bottle but couldn’t put it out, then all the lights went out. “I just couldn’t believe how fast it went up,” he said. Russell said one of his band members, guitarist Ty Longley, was among the missing.
The club had passed a fire code compliance inspection Dec. 31 to get its liquor license renewed, Hall said. He said sprinklers were not required because of the building’s size, but a license would have been required for the pyrotechnic display.
Great White’s hits include “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” and “Rock Me.” The band emerged amid the Los Angeles metal scene of the late 1980s, but has continued to record and tour in recent years.
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