WEST WARWICK, R.I. - The local firefighters’ shift began by rescuing panicked and often severely burned victims, and it ended 12 hours later as they carried body bags out of the rubble.
It was by far the grisliest day in the West Warwick Fire Department’s history. Five firefighters were treated for smoke inhalation and released, and many more suffered psychological distress while working at the leveled nightclub The Station. State agencies provided firefighters with counseling, but it was unclear last night how many of them used it.
Their leader went out of his way to praise the firefighters, saying they were responsible for saving almost 100 lives.
“I’ve never been prouder to be the chief,” said Charles Hall, chief of the department. “It takes its toll; it’s very stressful.”
When firefighters first arrived on the scene early yesterday morning as flames engulfed the building, club-goers trapped inside were smashing out windows, trying to escape. Firefighters helped pull them out. Then, as dozens of fire trucks arrived, other firefighers charged in to try to save those who hadn’t made it out. Soon the grounds around the club became a hellish nightmare: people on fire rolling on the ground, victims covered with blisters, their skin scorched. Shrieks filled the air.
Hours later, after the sun had come up, the club had been reduced to a mound of steaming black rubble surrounded by a few standing walls. The walls were knocked down, and the grim task of recovering remains began. Firefighters had to wade into the club’s basement, which was filled with water, to look for bodies. With each corpse or body part recovered, firefighters paused and took off their helmets. Fire chaplains would say a short prayer, and work would then resume.
Many of the firefighters leaving the scene for the day declined to talk to reporters, though they were obviously shaken, wiping tears from their eyes and sweat from their brows. About 4 p.m., when a group of seven firefighters emerged from the site, a crowd broke into applause.
“I am so proud of you guys,” said Leo Costantino, a West Warwick town councilor.