Wendy Pacheco of North Dartmouth, Mass., attaches a balloon to a memorial to her brother, Thomas Marion, as her son, Logan, waits at the site of The Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, R.I. Marion was one of 100 people killed in the Feb. 20, 2003, fire that started when pyrotechnics set off by the rock band Great White ignited flammable foam that had been installed as soundproofing.
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AP photo / Steven Senne

Wendy Pacheco of North Dartmouth, Mass., attaches a balloon to a memorial to her brother, Thomas Marion, as her son, Logan, waits at the site of The Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, R.I. Marion was one of 100 people killed in the Feb. 20, 2003, fire that started when pyrotechnics set off by the rock band Great White ignited flammable foam that had been installed as soundproofing.

Tragedy seared into victims' memory

By Michelle R. Smith
The Associated Press

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This is where 100 people were killed Feb. 20, 2003, when the tour manager for the rock band Great White set off a flashy pyrotechnics display in an overcrowded nightclub, igniting flammable packing foam that had been installed as soundproofing. In less than a minute, a Thursday evening out for more than 400 music lovers and club employees turned into a nightmare as flames raced through the one-story wooden roadhouse.

Some people were lucky to escape with nothing more than bloody cuts or singed hair. Others were crushed beneath a throng that surged for the front exit or died from breathing toxic fumes created by the burning foam. Still others survived but horribly were burned, some losing their eyesight or their hands or becoming so troubled from the horrors they saw that they attempted suicide.

Ten years later, the imprint of the fire remains in this tiny state of slightly more than 1 million residents. It remains in the survivors and victims’ family members, many of whom feel justice never was served and who have found different ways to move forward with their lives. It remains in the scars – physical and mental – of the people who made it out alive. It remains in the sadness so many here still feel about that night, and the hope that it can be prevented from happening again.

“There’s corruption and stupidity and greed, but there’s also hope and bravery,” said Dave Kane, who lost his 18-year-old son in the fire. “Our children did not die for nothing. There’s a great legacy here, and if people listen to it, they will save other lives.”

Any number of people could have stopped the fire from happening: Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, the owners of The Station nightclub who had had the foam installed to stem noise complaints; West Warwick’s fire marshal, who failed to note the foam inside the club; and Daniel Biechele, Great White’s tour manager, who set off the pyrotechnics without a permit.

The only people criminally charged were the Derderians and Biechele. Biechele served less than two years, Michael Derderian less than three.

“I don’t know that I’ll ever forgive myself for what happened that night, so I can’t expect anybody else to,” Biechele tearfully said as he apologized to the victims and took responsibility for the fire in court.

Gina Russo, of Cranston, R.I., was burned over 40 percent of her body. She has had dozens of operations and expects they will continue for the rest of her life. She permanently lost her hair, and she found it difficult to look at herself in the mirror in the months after the fire. Her fiance, Fred Crisostomi, was killed.

Several months after the fire, someone sent her the story of the phoenix, the mythical bird that is reborn from the ashes. It came at a time when, she said, she was just realizing she wanted to survive her ordeal. She realized that no matter what’s in her way, she wanted to rise above it.

Russo now leads The Station Fire Memorial Foundation, which is working to build a permanent memorial at the fire site. Survivors and victims’ relatives still tend to the land. After storms, they plow snow from the parking lot and right the crosses that dot the site, many of which are made out of floorboards salvaged from the club’s remains.

The Station Fire Memorial Foundation secured the land in September for a permanent memorial after a yearslong effort.

The group soon will ask families to come remove any items they wish to keep. Then, its members will gather up what’s left and surround the site with chain link fencing so construction will start. The left-behind mementos will be entombed beneath what is now the parking lot. Workers will not dig on the site itself for fear of disturbing human remains.