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In Rhode Island, shared sorrow

Rhode Island responds to Thursday’s nightclub fire with the shared sorrow of a tightknit community

Robin Petrarca (right) and Jessica Studley comfort each other at the scene of the tragedy. The two were in the club when the fire broke out.

AP

Robin Petrarca (right) and Jessica Studley comfort each other at the scene of the tragedy. The two were in the club when the fire broke out.

WEST WARWICK, R.I. - At 6 a.m. yesterday, the telephone jangled Lorraine Boudreau awake. On the line was her son Scott, his voice trembling.

“Have you heard anything from Cory?” Scott Boudreau asked from Chicago, where he was watching a TV news report about the deadly fire in West Warwick. “He was supposed to go see that group last night at that club.” As his mother started to answer, he exclaimed, “Oh my God, they’re taking bodies out. Give me Cory’s cellphone number.”

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As it turned out, 38-year-old Cory Boudreau had made a last-minute decision not to go to The Station Thursday night. Lorraine Boudreau, 66, spent five of the longest minutes of her life before she heard from Cory.

Yet mixed with a mother’s overwhelming relief that her son was safe was a Rhode Islander’s grief. In many ways, this tiny state thinks and acts like a tightknit village. It is often said of Rhode Island that everyone knows everyone. So a tragedy such as the fire that killed at least 96 people Thursday night is not just something seen on the news but a piercingly personal tragedy. There were few, if any, degrees of separation for Lorraine Boudreau and many Rhode Islanders as they waited yesterday with a sense of foreboding for the release of the names of the dead and injured. “We’re going to know a lot of people,” Boudreau said somberly.

In Providence, Ellen Nicholas also feared she might see a familiar name on the list. “Rhode Island is such a small state that it’s virtually impossible for each of us not to be affected,” said Nicholas, director of the English Language Institute at Johnson & Wales University. “There’s got to be a connection, whether it’s a neighbor, a friend, a daughter, a son. The ripple effect from this will be major. Just heartbreaking.”

Near The Station, a sign offered comfort to passersby.

EVAN RICHMAN/Globe Staff

Near The Station, a sign offered comfort to passersby.

For people inside and outside Rhode Island, the tragedy was another punishing blow to the psyche at a time when the nation is on high alert against terrorism, anticipating war with Iraq, recovering from a major snowstorm, and still absorbing the club stampede that claimed 21 lives in Chicago early Monday. The headline on the cover of the current issue of Time magazine is “America the Anxious,” featuring a person peering apprehensively through a wall of duct tape. In that environment, a night out at a club listening to music may have seemed like a welcome escape.

“What else do we need to bear right now?” asked Kate Hopkins, a federal probation officer, as she shopped at the Garden City shopping center in Cranston. “It’s just one more thing we have to be worried about.” As Hopkins drove by Rhode Island Hospital in Providence yesterday and saw all the ambulances and other emergency-response vehicles clustered near the entrance, she couldn’t help thinking that the scene was similar to the aftermath of a terrorist attack. “It was very intimidating,” she said.

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Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said many others are likely to feel as Hopkins does. In the current state of national anxiety, he said, events such as the West Warwick fire “get folded into all of these tragedies that have been happening, that keep people on the alert and feeling that their lives are fragile, that through an accident or some other kind of tragedy you can lose your life. It’s part of that feeling of terror: the unexpected.”

He noted that many people have stopped flying since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, while others worry about going to public places such as shopping malls. Now, even though terrorism was not involved in the West Warwick fire, the tragedy may create another layer of concern. “They’re supposed to be relaxing with friends, but they have to be thinking, `When is the next tragedy going to occur?’ “ he said.

Throughout Rhode Island yesterday, tension and anxiety were very much rooted in the present. Living in a state of just over 1,214 square miles and with barely 1 million people, residents knew that the chance of seeing a familiar name on the casualty list was a lot higher than it might have been had the tragedy occurred in California, Texas, or New York.

Barry Bergeron, a 42-year-old Warwick resident, had considered going to The Station on Thursday night but lingered at a restaurant in Cranston instead. Yesterday afternoon, he stood outside the club’s smoking rubble and wondered whether he knew any of the victims. “I hope I don’t have any connection,” he said. “I don’t want to see the names.” He had already struck up a conversation with one of the club patrons who had escaped the flames. “It’s scary, really scary, the look in [his] eyes,” he said.

Others were equally haunted. Amy Laudon, a 17-year-old high school student from West Warwick, had been scheduled to play a basketball game last night, but the game was canceled. Three girls on her basketball team had relatives in the club at the time of the fire, she said. According to Laudon, one teammate’s mother was missing, as was another girl’s father, and the brother of a third teammate had third-degree burns on his face and hands.

Jon Schmidt, who was at the club when the fire broke out, tells his story to reporters.

Globe Photo

Jon Schmidt, who was at the club when the fire broke out, tells his story to reporters.

Struggling to keep her composure as she cashed a check at the Coastway Credit Union in Cranston, Laudon said, “I’m just going to spend some time with my mom and wait by the phone.”

By midafternoon yesterday, as Lorraine Boudreau had expected, reverberations from the tragedy had begun to reach the optometrist’s office where she works. One death in the fire involved the niece of the best friend of a doctor’s mother. Boudreau worried there might be more. “We have so many patients from West Warwick, so we’re waiting,” she said. “This state is small, small, and being so close . . .” Her voice trailed off.

Many other Rhode Islanders were hit just as hard. Gary Sasse, executive director of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, said there was “just a sick feeling throughout the entire state.” “This state is almost like a close family, so a tragedy like this will be deeply felt in a very personal way throughout the state,” he said.

Meanwhile, once Cory Boudreau had reassured his mother that he was all right, that he had not been inside The Station when it went up in flames, he felt compelled to visit the rubble that was all that was left of one of his favorite clubs.

The construction equipment company for which he works as a salesman donated hard hats and shovels to the rescue and cleanup effort. He lives near the club and had gone there about once a month. As of late yesterday afternoon, he had encountered 10 acquaintances who had been in the club but escaped.

He was haunted by thoughts of those who were not as lucky. “It’s traumatizing,” he said. “It’s very emotional. The casualty number is staggering. This has never happened in Rhode Island, something of this magnitude.”

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