WEST WARWICK, R.I. - A rock band’s explosive light show ignited a lightning-quick blaze, a curtain of blinding smoke, and a panicked stampede to escape a hellish inferno that killed at least 96 people in one of the deadliest nightclub fires in US history.
Scores of Great White fans trying to save themselves Thursday night were trapped in doorways, squeezed so tightly that few could slip out as the fire, fueled by the acoustic insulation behind the stage, consumed the crowded building.
As emergency crews searched the ruins of The Station nightclub yesterday for bodies and evidence, state and federal authorities opened a criminal investigation that initially focused on who was legally responsible for the indoor fireworks at the wooden, one-story building.
“I would say to let off pyrotechnics in that building you were asking for trouble,” said Rhode Island Governor Donald Carcieri, adding, “If there’s criminal wrongdoing, believe me, it will be pursued.”
At least 187 people were being treated for burns and other injuries. Thirty-five of them were listed in critical condition last night with severe burns and smoke inhalation.
The nightclub owners said the band did not have permission for the theatrical fireworks that signaled the opening of their late-night set around 11 p.m. The band said it had received that approval from the nightclub.
Authorities, who interviewed band members and club owners, said neither had the state and local approvals required for a pyrotechnics display. Approval would have been “absolutely” denied if it had been sought, officials said.
Carcieri said investigators, led by the state attorney general’s office, would seek to assess blame after the remains of all victims had been recovered and their families - some of whom searched frantically for loved ones at area hospitals yesterday - had been notified.
“This building went up fast. Nobody had a chance,” Carcieri said. He said officials believe the bodies of all victims have been found.
Scenes from the fire - whose chaos and carnage was reminiscent of Boston’s Cocoanut Grove blaze that killed nearly 500 in 1942 - were captured by a Providence television station that employed one of the nightclub owners, TV reporter Jeff Derderian.
Derderian, at the club with a cameraman, escaped the fire and later was questioned by law enforcement officials.
The television images, broadcast worldwide by early yesterday morning, showed nightclub patrons cheering with pumped fists and longneck bottles of beer as Jack Russell, lead singer for the band Great White, began his set singing “Desert Moon.”
As guitars wailed, pyrotechnics similar to Fourth of July sparklers exploded on stage, and the pumping fists turned to frantic hands pointing to the fire.
Almost immediately, flames licked acoustic material behind the stage and danced across the nightclub’s ceiling.
Fire officials said the club was fully aflame within three minutes.
“I saw a wall of flame going up to the ceiling and it was just mayhem, panic,” said John Reagle, a drummer for Great White’s opening act. “As soon as we made it out the side door, everything went black inside.”
Joe Barber, who lives near the club, said he escaped by climbing over victims at a side door. “It was terrible, terrible,” said Barber, who burned a hand helping others to safety. “People just clawing, scratching, punching - anything they could do to get out. You feel so helpless.”
Some patrons at first believed the fire to be part of the act, then described a chilling tableau of fear as patrons rushed for exits in smoke so thick they couldn’t see. Exits were quickly blocked by patrons felled by fire, smoke, or by chaotic trampling. Some broke a window and jumped through to safety.
West Warwick Fire Chief Charles Hall said the club’s fire alarms were working, its fire extinguishers were workable, and its exit signs were lit. But he said the club was not required to use a sprinkler system because it was in operation before that requirement was adopted, and because of its relatively small size.
“If there were sprinklers in this building, we wouldn’t be standing here right now,” Hall told reporters. He said “any pyrotechnics in the interior of a combustible building is unsafe.”
As crews raked through charred timbers, a sometimes emotional Hall described a macabre scene inside The Station. He said in the “panic and chaos,” about 25 bodies ended up stacked up at the nightclub’s entrance.
Others were found near the club’s three other operating fire exits, near the stage and the bar. Some, he said, were found in the club’s restrooms.
Fire officials, he said, have a copy of the WPRI-TV tape of the fire’s beginnings. “Any video or any evidence that we can get is important,” Hall said.
Russell, whose heavy metal band was nominated in 1990 for a Grammy, said the group has used the pyrotechnic displays “four or five” times since they began their most recent tour last month in Chicago.
“There’s also been occasions when we’ve gone to the club and they said yes, we can use it, and we said, `No, it doesn’t look safe,’ “ he said. “It’s like sparklers. You can put your hand over them. I stand there every night with my arms over them and I don’t get burned.”
Russell’s contention that he has always asked permission to use the pyrotechnics and received that approval for Thursday night’s show was immediately contested by the club’s owners. Michael and Jeffrey Derderian, who own The Station, said the band did not seek or receive that permission.
“At no time did either owner have prior knowledge that pyrotechnics were going to be used by the band Great White,” they said in a statement issued by their lawyer, Kathleen M. Hagerty. “No permission was ever requested by the band or its agents to use pyrotechnics at The Station, and no permission was ever given.”
The owner of a nightclub in Asbury Park, N.J., said Great White used the theatrical pyrotechnics during a performance last week without giving club managers advance notice. “Our stage manager didn’t even know it until it was done,” said Domenic Santana, owner of the Stone Pony.
One patron recalled a small fire during a show at The Station a year ago, but officials said there was no record of it.
Paul Woolnough, president of Great White’s management company, said he did not know details about the approval process for Thursday night’s show. “Part of this tour, they have been using those effects,” said Woolnough. “And it’s always done on a case-by-case basis. . . . I would presume that permission was granted.”
Hagerty said the Derderians, who purchased The Station in March 2000, are “devastated and in shock over these events, which have claimed the lives of so many, including their friends.
“Jeffrey Derderian was in the club at the time the fire broke out, and assisted in helping to evacuate the building during the fast-moving fire. Mr. Derderian was interviewed by state and local authorities [Thursday] night on the scene and provided all information as requested.”
The capacity at The Station, built around 1950, was 300. Fire officials said they believed there were fewer than 300 patrons there on Thursday night. But Carcieri, compiling figures of those dead, injured, or safe, said there may have been as many as 350 people inside.
“There seem to be more people than we had been led to believe,” the Rhode Island governor said.
Investigators are examining additional pyrotechnics found on the site, but did not assess their significance.
Carcieri said seven bodies had been identified by last night. Eight more are expected to be quickly identified by “visual inspection.” Five teams of forensic pathologists from around the country are headed for Rhode Island to help state authorities identify remains, using dental records and DNA.
Emergency crews adopted a somber ritual at the burned-out wreckage. Firefighters removed their helmets and paused for a moment of silence when a body was discovered. Fire chaplains said prayers over the remains. Officials said the club’s 1,700-square-foot basement was badly flooded and would have to be pumped out to determine whether more bodies are there.
“This is really a tough, tough day,” said Carcieri, who spoke with a couple who escaped the club through a rear entrance. “Their description to me was that in 30 seconds, if you weren’t out of that building in 30 seconds, you didn’t have a prayer.”
The scene was bathed in floodlights last night as work continued. During the day, a large section of the busy thoroughfare was closed as a large construction excavator knocked down remaining support beams and helped clear rubble. Fire trucks were positioned to block onlookers’ view of the recovery effort.
The blaze at the nightclub 15 miles southwest of Providence was the deadliest fire at a US nightclub since 1977, when 165 people died at the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Ky. And it was the second deadly episode at a US nightclub in four days.
Twenty-one people died in a Chicago melee early Monday after a security guard used pepper spray on patrons after a fight broke out.
“An investigation has begun,” said state Attorney General Patrick Lynch. “The investigation will continue. But now is not the time to discuss the investigation. What is most important is notifying the victims’ families and offering support to the many Rhode Islanders who are suffering at this time.”
As rescue workers raked through the wreckage, Julie Belson, 31, struggled to recover from the shock of surviving a fire she watched unfold.
“I was in the front row with my boyfriend and I saw it catch fire,” said Belson, a dental assistant from Rowley. “It was growing. It was really hot. The heat was like crazy. It burned off my bangs. My instinct was to grab my bag.”
Belson was briefly lost in blinding, black smoke. Then she found a window. But not her boyfriend. “I don’t remember if anyone helped me and I don’t remember landing,” she said. “I just remember turning around and he wasn’t there.”
Outside and badly shaken, Belson stumbled into her boyfriend, who was covered with soot and was listed last night in serious condition at Rhode Island Hospital with burns to his face and hands. “I couldn’t believe how fast it all happened,” said Belson, who said she could spot herself and her boyfriend in the television tape of the fire.”
I thought, `Oh my God. I’m going to die.’ I couldn’t see anything. We were all holding our breath.”
Geoff Edgers, John Ellement, Christopher Rowland, Jonathan Saltzman, Megan Tench, and Joanna Weiss of the Globe staff contributed to this report, along with Globe correspondents Heather Allen, Peter DeMarco, and Jeff Nilsen. Material from the Associated Press also was used.
Inside the Station
Thursday night’s deadly fire at The Station nightclub was sparked by a pyrotechnic display and fueled by acoustic foam lining the walls behind the stage, fire officials said. Thick smoke obscured exits as patrons rushed to the club’s front door. The building was fully engulfed in three minutes, West Warwick Fire Chief