WARWICK, R.I. - At midafternoon yesterday in a lobby area of the Crowne Plaza Hotel, a crowd of grief-stricken friends and relatives stood beneath an overhead television set tuned to a Providence station’s coverage of Thursday’s nightclub fire and its aftermath.
When the official death toll was reported to have reached 85 - it would rise even higher as the grim day wore on - there were gasps and sobs among the onlookers, who were among the estimated 200 gathered at a victims’ family assistance center set up by the American Red Cross.
It was a scene reminiscent of other large-scale disasters - plane crashes, the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, even Sept. 11, with its haunting images of missing loved ones’ pictures taped to lampposts in Lower Manhattan - where the fate of so many remains unknown, and the chances for survival appear so depressingly slim.
Grief was etched everywhere on the faces of those who waited at the hotel yesterday. Scores of them sat in small, tight circles, as if proximity alone could alleviate the pain they were feeling as the wait continued. Others sat on the carpeting, slumped against the lobby walls, or chatted on cellular phones, passing along what scant news there was to report to the outside world.
Many of the victims’ kin wept as the television replayed scenes of the fire again and again. Some sat at long tables and numbly filled out missing persons reports, under the guidance of uniformed State Police officers. Still others took brief breaks from the waiting and watching to nibble on refreshments. Dozens of boxes of tissue were strategically placed around the lobby area, which was closed to anyone not officially connected to the victims or to the counseling and support staff.
A Red Cross instruction sheet on a nearby chair - titled “Disaster Mental Health” - spelled out guidelines for volunteers. “Assess for needs. . .,” read one directive. “People are not thinking clearly.” “Listen without trying to cure them,” advised another. “Allow people to stay with feelings rather than try to make them go away.”
Among the list of proscribed actions: (Don’t) “Try to make it all better, [because] you can’t.”
As the afternoon wore on and it appeared there would be little good news to report, Red Cross volunteers circulated among the anxious and the anguished, offering trays of candy and stuffed animals to hug. Several function rooms at the hotel had already been converted into psychological triage centers, where clergy members and mental health personnel counseled family members - one at a time or in groups.
The Rev. Virgil Wood, pastor of Pond Street Baptist Church in Providence, was among the clergy members who rushed to help. Walking by one woman who stood in the lobby clutching a teddy bear, Wood went over and embraced her. She instantly burst into tears. Pulling together a pair of chairs near the lobby window, Wood and the woman clasped hands and began to pray. At one point in the impromptu counseling session, the woman smiled and laughed. But there were many more tears than smiles as the prayers continued.
Not all the news from the family center was bad, however. One father went to the hotel yesterday morning looking for information about his missing daughter, who had reportedly been at The Station for Thursday’s show.
“We were able to tell him she was fine,” said Nick Logothets, director of disaster services for the local Red Cross. “Go call your wife,” Logothets said he told the man, “and everybody cheered.”