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Feb. 22, 2003

In seconds, elation turned to horror

A cameraman caught the moments when Great White’s fireworks display ignited the fire.

WPRI-TV

A cameraman caught the moments when Great White’s fireworks display ignited the fire.

Editor’s note: This article is from The Boston Globe’s archives. It originally ran on Feb. 22, 2003, two days after a fatal fire broke out at The Station nightclub in West Warwick, R.I.

WEST WARWICK, R.I. - Before the smell of burning flesh, before his knuckles were bloodied by scrambling feet, before the yelling turned into inarticulate screams, before he saw people with flaming hair and half-melted faces, everything was different.

Christopher Travis was singing in his pick-up truck.

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For the last month, in preparation for the show, Travis had been playing his Great White compact discs at top volume on his way to and from the construction site where he works. He had first seen them live in 1986, when he was a hard-partying 20-year-old, and despite the changes that followed - a marriage, a divorce, sobriety - few things make him pump the air in wild joy like the opening chords of “Desert Moon.”

While Travis was shaving a razor-edge into his goatee, Erin Pucino was checking her watch at the Shell station cash register where she works, and 19-year-old Mike Ricardi was interviewing Great White lead singer Jack Russell for his college radio show, “Jim and Mikey’s Power Hour.”

By the following morning, all three would-be survivors of one of the deadliest fires in US history, gazing into the smoking rubble where at least 96 people had died: They would be wrenched out of dense piles of bodies, having groped along the floorboards of The Station and seen charred bodies in the snow outside the nightclub. Mike’s friend Jim would be missing. Erin’s friend Tammy would be missing.

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At 9 p.m., though, it was all anticipation. Travis, in a satin Harley-Davidson jacket and black jeans, offered up the ticket he had bought for $15 at Strawberries Records. Past a bald bouncer, he stepped into a smoky club whose floor was sticky with beer. It wasn’t the type of place you would take a first date, said one musician who had performed there.

Waitresses mingled through the crowd with racks of beaker-shaped shot glasses. The crowd, Travis noticed, “had a good buzz going.” Great White’s guitarist played the first few chords of “Desert Moon” opening the 11 p.m. set, and Travis was elated.

“I pumped my hands in the air,” he said. “I had been waiting for this for a long time.”

The Station was a thicket of waving hands, dozens of hands curled into the heavy-metal “Devil’s Horns” symbol, when the act opened with three fountains of sparkling fireworks. As the cones of fire grew behind him, Russell leaned into the microphone, silhouetted by flame. The stage was bathed in orange light.

There was a moment, a pause. Twenty-six-year-old Rena Gersheris, carrying a rack of shots, gazed at the sparks and decided they were part of the show. Travis, who said he had seen fire break out at The Station at another show last fall, waited for someone to spring forward with a fire extinguisher and put out the fire as they had last fall.

“But nobody did anything,” he said.

Pucino’s friend grabbed her by the hand and said, “We’re going now.”

As captured on film, the waving hands suddenly moved differently: They pointed urgently toward the back-right corner of the bar, where one exit is. The music stopped. One of the musicians said something into the mike; it sounded muffled and echoing.

A male voice said, “I’m just going to the door.” A woman said, “I can’t move.” Her voice rises to a shriek. “I can’t!”

Then the power cut out. The fire poured up the wall onto the ceiling.

As he fell out of a side window onto a deck below, Michael Ricardi, a sophomore at Nichols College, felt the presence of his grandfather, a Worcester firefighter who died in a burning building. “I went that way; you’re not going to,” Ricardi said he imagined his grandfather saying. On the deck, wandering among charred and unconscious bodies, he was unable to cry, he said.

Pucino, a baby-faced 25-year-old, grasped her friends’ hands tightly and made it to the front door - but was crushed under 15 to 20 people who fell on top of her. Her arms flailed at the door’s opening and her legs were crushed by the weight of human bodies, Pucino said. Then she felt a hand grab her hand. Two women and one man were pulling her. They pulled her for two minutes, Pucino estimates, and while the women lost their grip on her, the man was holding her tightly when she fell, free, to the ground.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Former Station employee Menissa Warner hugged Tim Arnold in West Warwick, R.I. Two of their friends, Steve and Andrea Mancini, were missing.

“I’d do anything for that man,” Pucino said later. “I don’t know who he was. I saw his arms, but not his face.”

For his part, Travis was knocked to the ground, and started crawling along a wall as people stomped on his fingers. Hands pushed him forward, and he burst out through a side exit. There were people with their hair burnt off, and people with chunks of skin missing, people with blisters all over. Some people were rolling in the grass. Some people were ripping their clothes off. Some people had puffy winter jackets burning. On all fours, Travis realized that the smell in his nostrils was burning bodies.

“I’ve never smelled it before, but I knew what I was smelling,” Travis said.

Anthony Carsetti, who was driving home with a bag of dog food at 11:15, saw two people stagger out of the club’s entrance. Then he saw a dozen, running. Some had hair on fire. Then their faces began to be charred. Some crawled out of the club on their hands and knees. Some of them walked around stunned.

“It looked like they were zombies coming toward us,” said Kim Toher, a waitress at the Cowesett Inn.

At the inn, waitresses began filling bags with ice. The 130 to 140 people treated there were suffering from second- and third-degree burns and legs broken from being trampled. Those who escaped found, often, that the friend who had been right behind them had been scorched in the seconds after they jumped out. A 34-year-old Pawtucket man who identified himself only as John said he had let go of his fiancee’s hand only at the last moment, when he jumped through the window. Yesterday morning, when John was talking to reporters near the burn site, his fiancee was in critical condition.

“She was only in there four seconds longer than I was,” he said.

The patients were wrapped, mummylike, in gauze, and transported to area hospitals. Dr. Selim Suner, an emergency room physician, said about a dozen of the 60 patients brought to Rhode Island Hospital have life-threatening injuries. Many have burns on their hands, suggesting that they were trying to crawl out of the club over a burning floor.

“I haven’t ever seen the number of burn patients so concentrated as this one,” he said. “One by one, they just kept coming.”

Shortly before dawn, a local pastor approached Russell, who was standing near the site of the fire answering questions from reporters.

“You could see he was just on the verge,” said Dave LaChance, pastor of the New Song Christian Fellowship. “I just asked him if he wanted someone to pray with. We just held on to each other a little bit.”

The smell of carbon came and went yesterday morning, sometimes mingled with alcohol and sometimes, people thought, with rubber. After all four walls had fallen, the entrance to The Station - a section of wall painted with a 6-foot head of Ozzy Osbourne - still stood.

Travis drove himself to Kent County Memorial Hospital. The first thing he did when he got in his truck was play “Desert Moon.”

He has an upwelling of wanting for the band members, and wants to give them his condolences.

But he has decided not to go to any more live rock shows.

“Maybe it’s time to grow up and move on,” he said.

Chris Rowland, Megan Tench, Tatsha Robertson, Douglas Belkin, Anne Barnard, and Jonathan Saltzman of the Globe staff and correspondent Peter DeMarco contributed to this story.
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