WEST WARWICK, R.I. – The site of a nightclub fire that killed 100 people in 2003 is reopening Sunday as a memorial park to honour the memories of those who died, the more than 200 people injured and the many people who rushed to help in the minutes, weeks, months and years after the blaze sent shockwaves through this tight-knit state.
The memorial for The Station nightclub fire in West Warwick is scheduled to open with a ceremony expected to draw hundreds of people. The Feb. 20, 2003, blaze began when pyrotechnics for the rock band Great White ignited flammable foam that lined the club’s walls as soundproofing. It was engulfed within seconds.
Relatives of those killed and fire survivors have worked for more than a decade to build a permanent memorial at the site, which for years was overgrown with weeds and dotted with handmade crosses, weather-beaten stuffed animals and personal memorabilia left by victims’ loved ones.
Gina Russo, president of the Station Fire Memorial Foundation, lost her fiancé, Fred Crisostomi, and she was severely burned. She has spent the years since recovering and undergoing numerous surgeries, while also working to maintain her health insurance and trying to raise the money needed to build the memorial and maintain it in perpetuity.
Russo said she now feels she has done everything humanly possible to honour Crisostomi and the 99 others who died.
“Maybe now I can finally let go of some of the guilt of surviving it,” she said Friday.
Even 14 years later, Russo said she still feels guilt every day that she got out and others did not, wondering “Why me?” She still physically struggles with severe burn injuries over much of her body and is due soon for another surgery.
“It’s for the rest of my life,” she said. “But then I say, ‘Oh, how can I complain? Because they can’t. They can’t.’ So it’s important to remember them, but it’s a heavy guilt. It’s definitely a heavy guilt.”
Dave Kane’s 18-year-old son, Nicholas O’Neill, was the youngest person to die in the fire. He says he doesn’t need the memorial to remember his son: He goes to his gravesite for that.
“The people who were really seriously injured don’t need to be reminded. They have mirrors,” Kane said. “What this site is supposed to be, for me, is a reminder to others of what happens when people we trust with our safety don’t do their jobs.”
Indeed, at the top of the memorial, the foundation has installed a timeline that details important events leading up to and since the fire. It begins six decades before Feb. 20, 2003, with Cocoanut Grove, the 1942 fire that killed 492 people at a Boston nightclub.
Further on, it includes events such as the failure of fire inspections and the installation of the flammable foam. The entries get down to days, hours and seconds around the blaze itself. The timeline ends with entries for the Ghost Ship fire in December in Oakland, California, that killed 36 people, and the opening of the memorial on Sunday.
The final entry offers up two words for visitors to ponder in the years to come: Today Remember.
Jody King’s younger brother, Tracy, was a bouncer at The Station and was killed that night. On Friday, King cried after walking along the pathways lined with granite memorial stones, one for each victim.
“This is really cool to stand here now and to look down from the hill on what was a mess for a lot of years,” King said. “Tracy reminds me that even a grain of sand can be turned into a pearl. There’s our pearl.”