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The Station Fire: One Year Later

Facing government apathy, the survivors of the Rhode Island club disaster struggle to regain their lives

Fire in Nightclub, Rhode Island

Rescue workers, firefighters and police officers pull bodies from the burned-out remains of The Station, a nightclub in West Warwick, R.I. February 21st, 2003

Susan Watts/NY Daily News Archive/Getty

Getting out didn’t mean going back to normal. Some of the survivors of the Station fire will never work again, breathe properly, feed themselves or tan on a beach. Widowed, they raise children on disability checks that don’t reach poverty level, and they contemplate bankruptcy. Skin grafts make them itch, like junkies attacking their scabs –— if their fingers work at all. Then there are the nightmares, over and over again, of marching flame and smoke. People stare at them in public, at the bandannas that cover their hairless heads, at their red, claw-like hands, their lack of certain facial features, their melted ears. They’re depressed, guilt-ridden and angry, and to most Americans outside the small, insular state of Rhode Island, they’re invisible, forgotten casualties of a forgotten brand of rock & roll. They are a collection of blue-collar music fans – contractors, Wal-Mart workers, strippers, struggling musicians – who made the mistake of turning up on February 20th, 2003, to see a washed-up boogie band, Great White, ignite outsized pyrotechnics, talismans of a long-gone glory, on a tiny stage ringed by cheap, flammable foam.

One year after the fire killed 100 people and injured nearly 200 at the Station, a nightclub in the broken-down mill town of West Warwick, emotions remain raw all across the state. Prosecutors recently brought involuntary-manslaughter charges against the club’s owners, Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, and Dan Biechele, Great White’s former tour manager, and a raft of civil suits have also been filed. All three have pleaded innocent, and the victims worry that criminal negligence will be hard to prove and that none of those charged will go to prison. Even if the plaintiffs prevail, there may be little money to go around for those wounded in the fourth-deadliest nightclub fire in American history.

Half of the fire victims who were hospitalized had no health insurance, according to the state’s Department of Human Services. Medical costs continue to mount, much of which will be paid from the nearly empty pockets of Rhode Island taxpayers, via Medicaid, and the budgets of a handful of local hospitals, which have been losing millions of dollars for years. At least 60 children lost one or more parent in the blaze; 23 people lost a spouse. From the Bush administration, which has a pattern of ignoring the needs of states that vote Democratic, has come almost no direct aid at all – just a few hundred thousand dollars for non-medical expenses.

“The first two days of the Iraq war, Bush launched $500 million in Tomahawk cruise missiles to hit a target that wasn’t there,” says Dan Davidson, a videographer from Westerly, Rhode Island, who shot some dramatic still photos inside the Station that night. “People here were forgot­ten two weeks after the fire. This is Bush’s way of saying, ‘Fuck you very much’ for voting against him in 2000.” A controver­sial benefit tour by Great White raised less than $70,000 – enough for about two weeks in intensive care for one fire victim.

Incredibly, West Warwick’s fire marshal, Denis Larocque, remains on the job. New fire-safety regulations became law in July, requiring sprinklers in more Rhode Island businesses and banning pyro almost every­where, but some business owners in the state have balked, citing the cost of improve­ments. And regulations don’t mean much unless they are consistently enforced. State officials, already grappling with huge budget deficits and a reputation for cronyism, ac­knowledge that Rhode Island needs a new corps of fire inspectors if the mandated changes are to have any real impact.

Some of the most grievously injured still work hard to get better, or close to what they were – physically and emotion­ally – before the fire. Gina Russo, 36, a chatty single mother of two small boys, passed out from the black smoke and never saw who pulled her out of the crush of bodies piled up like cordwood at the club’s main entrance. Days later, doctors informed Russo’s parents that their daughter would die. A priest read her last rites. The burns weren’t killing her; it was the damage done by smoke to her lungs.

Russo hung on and, with the help of a new type of ventilator, began to improve. Doctors kept her in a medically induced coma for 12 weeks. One of the first things Russo learned, when she woke up in April, was that her boyfriend, Freddy Crisostomi, 38, a successful house painter and the father of two children, had died in the fire, of smoke inhalation. In June, Russo tasted solid food for the first time since February 20th. She finally went home, on June 13th, 113 days after the Great White concert.

Flames had burned more than 40 per­cent of Russo’s body: her arms, hands, head and back. The fire took her left ear, although the eardrum remains intact, and Russo’s hearing is fine. Untouched by the fire, her legs are nevertheless a patchwork of skin-graft donor sites. With 15 surgeries be­hind her, Russo will undergo many more – to reconstruct various parts of her body —– as well as years of physical therapy.

She has limited use of her right arm. “I can’t open a jar with it,” Russo says. “I can pick certain things up, but most of the time I’ll drop them. The index finger on my left hand was an open wound, which didn’t heal properly and ended up con­tracting. The orthopedic surgeon hopes he can at least straighten it, although it’ll never work.”

One recent morning, at the home of her parents, in Cranston, Rhode Island, where she now lives with her two young sons, Russo adjusts the patterned bandanna that covers her head. “I had fourth-degree burns there, which means my hair will never grow back,” she says. “The fire burned right to the skull, which killed all the follicles. I’ve still got some openings in my skull, but they’re closing enough to where I can start reconstructive surgery.”

Donovan Williams, 33, of Westerly, fights his own multiple battles. A hard-rock fanatic and father of three young children, he’d been going to the Station and its prior incarnations for a decade. The night of the fire, EMTs choppered him from a Rhode Island hospital to Massachusetts General, in Boston. He’d suffered severe burns to the top and back of his head, his back, buttocks, legs, arms, shoulders and hands – more than 60 percent of his body. Doctors gave Williams a 30 percent chance of survival. Like Gina Russo, he lay in a medicated coma until almost Easter, fighting the odds. He lost 45 pounds, suffered multiple infec­tions, a dangerous blood clot and kidney fail­ure, a common occurrence in burn patients. “And because of the swelling,” Williams says, “they had to slice my stomach open and tape my intestines on the outside of my body for five days so the organs could function.”

Williams awoke, in April, to hallucinations. A nurse was putting him to bed in his backyard, he was sure, on an air mat­tress. He was hanging out with Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler or floating in the air with one of his sons or walking through the parking lot of a liquor store. Doctors prescribed anti-psychotic medications, but the head games seemed to go on for weeks. Williams asked his nurses to pull the plug, even though he wasn’t hooked up to any sort of plug that could be pulled.

A far more severe and heartbreaking complication, considering how Williams cheated death, had also presented itself. Al­though he’d walked out of the Station under his own power to an ambulance, optical- nerve damage had left Williams blind. His children visited him in the hospital once or twice a week. His ex-wife told him stories of how his oldest son, Zach, 9, was playing sports. “That tore me up,” says Williams. “Every father wants to play catch with his kid and coach his Little League team. I asked her to take video, in case any of my vision came back.”

Miraculously, a bit of it did. While Williams still can’t see at all through his right eye, he’s regained about 30 percent of his vision in his left; it’s as if he’s looking at the world through a cheap pair of sunglasses. He can get around his sister’s house in Westerly, where he now lives with her husband and their three grown daughters, but he can’t read or drive. “If I watch a football game, I can tell if there’s a deep pass,” he says, “but I can’t tell if a field goal is good or not.”

Williams didn’t leave rehab until just before Labor Day, seven months after the Station fire, and still undergoes physical therapy three days a week. His right hand has the grip strength of a 70-year-old man’s. His left thumb, which he lost the tip of, won’t bend at all. Unable to work, he stays inside most days, listening to music in a downstairs bedroom, intensely bored, like Gina Russo.

Fired from her cashier’s job at Wal-Mart for wearing a lip ring, Lizz Arruda, 24, a machinist’s daughter, was in the third month of a far more lucrative new job, dancing at the Foxy Lady strip club in Providence, when the fire ruined her life. Burns covered 23 percent of Arruda’s 98-pound body – her face and arms, her entire back and her thighs. Her boyfriend, Tom Marion Jr., 27, a furniture-department manager at Wal-Mart and an aspiring rock guitarist, per­ished, shortly after pushing Arruda into the snow, saving her life. It took nearly a week for his remains to be identified.

Arruda spent five weeks in two different hospitals. “I had three surgeries,” she recalls one evening in January at the apartment she shares with her four-year-old daughter, Zoey, in Westport, Massachusetts. “The burn on my thigh was a fourth-degree burn, almost down to the bone.” Arruda laughs, mordantly, about the prospect of paying her rapidly accumulating medical bills. “I don’t really think about that,” she says. “That’s the last thing on my mind. There’s nothing I can do. I don’t have the money, or any health insurance.”

Even though the makeup that covers the burns on her face makes any damage virtu­ally invisible, Arruda is uncomfortable with the way she looks now. She talks by candle­light, defeated and nervous, dark eyes locked onto the floor of her small kitchen. “I don’t think I’ll ever feel like I did before,” she says. “I’m always depressed. I talked to a psychiatrist for three months. He was crazier than I was. All he did was prescribe me things. I would sleep all day, and when I got up I would feel like total shit. For months after I got out of the hospital, I didn’t want to do anything. People had to come here and get me out of bed.”

Zoey had trouble, too. “She was scared when she first saw me after the fire,” Arruda says. “She wouldn’t sit next to me, or come near me. She asks all the time, ‘How come Tom never came back?’ I just tell her he went to heaven.”

Not all of the survivors were left physically or emotionally devastated. A few of the unscathed seem blithely unaffected by the tragedy. Adam Tanzi, a burly security guard at Wal-Mart, in Warwick, was one of the first people to escape the fire. A cop pulled him out of the pile of bodies near the main entrance to the Station, and Tanzi hopped in his car and drove home. He has a few scars on his back, but that’s about it. Still, the lack of fundraising help from others in the rock community irks him. “The big-name acts should have given something,” he says.

And that is what you hear all across Rhode Island: anger at the cold shoulder from the popular-music community and disgust at the silence from Washington. A charity administered by the United Way, the Station Nightclub Fire Relief Fund, raised $3.2 million from private donations. SNFRF paid some of Gina Russo’s personal bills, about $5,000 in total. The cost of her care so far, she says, is well over $2 million. “I’m one of the lucky ones,” she says. “I had health insurance. It’s very scary for those who didn’t. Unless there’s some new miracle of money really soon, a lot of people could end up homeless.” For 19 years, Russo worked as an administrative secretary at a pediatric-cardiology group in Rhode Island. Chances are she will never be well enough to go back. Russo supports her two boys on a monthly disability check of $500.

For Donovan Williams, who was also in­sured, the fund paid his mortgage for three months, part of the cost of an air conditioner and some of his family’s incidental expenses, incurred while visiting Williams in the hospital. His temporary disability insurance from his former job ran out in September. Williams says the cost of his care so far exceeds $5 million.

The fund also paid Lizz Arruda a few thousand dollars, for rent and food. No longer able to dance at Foxy Lady, Arruda might go to bartending school. Disability checks total $600 per month. “That pays my rent, but not much else,” Arruda says. “It’s kind of pathetic. Now that Tom’s gone, I have to pay all the bills myself.”

The SNFRF cut off most beneficiaries in late October, nine months after the fire, having distributed about $2.2 million, which was used to cover funerals, house payments, ambulance rides and counseling. The fund announced that the remaining $1 million would be earmarked for mental-health aid and the future needs of 141 children whose parents died or were badly hurt at the Sta­tion. This decision upset some of the injured working-class people who still require med­ical help. Rhode Island Gov. Donald Carcieri has estimated that the cost of the fire will total more than $100 million, when the victims’ long-term care, for both rehabilitation and counseling, is factored in.

To pitch in, Donna Reis, a survivor who lost her fiance in the blaze, helped organize another grass-roots relief organization, the Station Family Fund. That group raised about $200,000 selling T-shirts and hosting small benefit concerts. In a move that fueled anger in Rhode Island, the Station Family Fund accepted about $65,000 from Great White, proceeds from a 42-date tour the band mounted last year, which, for the most part, stayed far away from Rhode Island and venues on the East Coast. “They don’t really have any money,” says the band’s attorney, Ed McPherson, “and they had to get on the road, in debt, and try to pay that debt off. At the same time, they’re giving money to the victims. It’s been very difficult for them, emotionally and financially.”

Gina Russo scorns the Bush administration’s response to the tragedy. Under pres­sure from a local legislator, Sen. Jack Reed of Cranston, the U.S. Department of Jus­tice agreed last May to provide $450,000 in federal money to help state and local law-enforcement agencies defray Station-fire-related expenses. Not a penny of it went to actual victims. Governor Carcieri’s February 27th request for federal disaster relief, as well as his appeal of that decision on April 23rd, were both denied. In a letter to Carcieri, a Bush-administration official explained that the fire didn’t meet the definition of a natural disaster because it wasn’t beyond the ca­pability of state and local authorities to deal with it. Never mind that the federal government had anted up $3.5 million in assistance when a fire in a warehouse in Worcester killed six firefighters in 1999.

“We can dump billions of dollars into foreign countries,” Russo says. “An earth­quake happens in another country, and we send millions of dollars to help. But there are 300 of us here, and there are children left be­hind because of this tragedy who will have to live the rest of their lives without parents, having to find a way to support themselves. We’re a burden on the state of Rhode Island – I never was, and I never intended to be, not at the age of 36. The government has to step forward. It’s their job to help.”

Last fall, wildfires ravaged Southern California – a state that Republican strategists are targeting in the 2004 election – destroy­ing thousands of homes and killing 22 people. President Bush rushed to the scene. In December, an earthquake in cen­tral California caused $200 million in dam­age and killed two people. A short while later, at the request of the new governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bush declared the region a federal disaster area, making federal funds available to augment state and local recovery efforts. Much of the money includes grants for buildings – to repair and rebuild them.

A Hell’s Angel stabs a fan at a free Rolling Stones concert, at California’s Altamont Raceway in 1969, and the culture shakes, and the 1960s end. Fans are tram­pled and die at concerts by the Who and Pearl Jam, and sweeping evaluations of concert security and crowd control take place. One hundred people die watching a minor rock outfit in a rundown town in a small, poor state, and American politi­cians and musicians yawn. “This thing,” Donovan Williams complains, “is a lot bigger than Altamont.”

Did the fog of war provoke this silence? A cultural bias against metal music? Callow re­venge by Bush Republicans? Or had the public, too, moved on? As Rhode Island con­tinued to heal and tried to pay its bills, For­eigner’s Lou Gramm and Starship, featuring Mickey Thomas, made plans to play a Jan­uary benefit concert at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence. In terms of “name” acts, this gig looked to be the biggest Station-fire benefit to date, put on by Providence native Brian McKinnon, a concert promoter who was deeply disappointed that no A-list acts would sign on.

The concert never happened. McKinnon was forced to call it off a week before show time, able to sell only 15 tickets. 

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