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The Station fire takes big toll on survivors

A high percentage of survivors of The Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, R.I., have battled depression and post-traumatic stress, regardless of whether they suffered burn injuries in the deadly blaze, a new study has found.

The study, conducted by researchers at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston and Harvard Medical School, was published Tuesday in PLOS One, a peer-reviewed journal. The findings were based on survey responses from 104 survivors of the fire, which killed 100 people and injured hundreds more on Feb. 20, 2003.

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According to the study, 53 percent of the survey’s respondents did not suffer burn injuries in the blaze. Nevertheless, they still showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress and depression at levels comparable to the survivors who were burned.

“The findings were surprising to us,” said Dr. Jeffrey Schneider, medical director of Spaulding’s Burn and Trauma Rehabilitation Program and the study’s lead investigator, in a phone interview. “We expected that the burn population would have done worse” and suffered higher incidences of stress and depression.

Among the respondents who suffered burn injuries, 23 percent had mild post-traumatic stress symptoms, 21 percent showed moderate indicators, and 35 percent had severe levels, the study found. In the same respective categories, the nonburn respondents registered at 33 percent, 24 percent, and 21 percent.

There was also relative parity in depression levels. Sixty-seven percent of the respondents with burn injuries had minimal to mild symptoms of depression, compared with 84 percent of the nonburn population. Thirty-three percent of respondents in the burn group had moderate to severe symptoms, compared with 16 percent for the nonburn group.

The burn injury group was more adversely affected in the area of employment. Sixty-nine percent of the burn respondents were able to return to their same jobs after the fire, compared with 91 percent in the nonburn group. And nearly twice as many respondents in the latter group were able to work full time.

‘I don’t think you can live through something like this and not change fundamentally.’

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“The findings suggest that quality of life, depression and post-traumatic stress outcomes are related to emotional trauma, not physical injury,” the researchers wrote. “However, physical injury is correlated with employment outcomes. The long-term impact of this traumatic event underscores the importance of longitudinal and mental health care for trauma survivors, with attention to those with and without physical injuries.”

Victoria Eagan, a Station survivor and vice president of The Station Fire Memorial Foundation, said Tuesday in a phone interview that many of her fellow survivors have struggled with the emotional toll that the blaze has taken on their lives.

“I think the emotional aspect in many ways has been more difficult for a lot of people, dealing with the survivor guilt and the aftereffects,” Eagan said.

The Station was completely engulfed in flames within minutes on the night of Feb. 20, when concert pyrotechnics ignited soundproofing material.

Eagan said that initially, many survivors participated in group therapy to address the mental trauma, and a core group of between 75 and 100 survivors continue to offer support to one another.

“I don’t think you can live through something like this and not change fundamentally,” Eagan said. “And for the most part, the changes that people have made have been positive and for the better.”

Travis Andersen can be reached at tandersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.
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