WEST WARWICK, R.I. — With every passing year, Gina Russo feels more grateful.
For the rest of her life, she will bear the scars from that terrible night 20 years ago. She and her fiancé, Alfred “Freddy” Crisostomi, had gone out on Feb. 20, 2003, to hear music at the Station nightclub, an old roadhouse that featured rock ’n’ roll. Great White was performing that night. When a tour manager set off the pyrotechnics during the opening song, it ignited a deadly blaze.
Russo was somehow pulled out of the burning building. Crisostomi didn’t make it. One hundred people perished in the fire, and 230 more were injured.
Russo suffered burns over 40 percent of her body. She mourned her fiancé, and felt guilty that she survived when so many died.
But eventually, Russo began to see her life differently.
She has married. She got to watch her two sons grow up. She was at their high school graduations and weddings. She’s a grandmother. “It was overwhelming for me,” she said. “I kept thinking, ‘I could have missed this.’”
Russo heads the Station Fire Memorial Foundation, which succeeded in having a permanent memorial built on the site of the destroyed nightclub. The people who had gone out to enjoy a night of music, the first responders and doctors who tried to save them, and the people who work to keep their memories alive are all connected through this one place at 211 Cowesett Ave.
“You walk on the property, and it doesn’t feel tragic anymore. People say they just feel peaceful,” Russo said. “For people to know you can go there now and look at this beautiful park and talk to your person … that’s what I love about it.”
This memorial gave her purpose, Russo said, and she visits often since it opened in 2017. She spends time at Crisostomi’s memorial stone there.
“When I’m stressed out about something and just need to feel connected, I go there. I feel his presence more,” Russo said.
She’ll be there again on Monday, for the anniversary.
It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years.
What happened the night of the fire
On Feb. 20, 2003, hundreds of people were packed into the Station nightclub when the ‘80s rock group Great White took the small stage. At 11:07 p.m., as the band launched into its opener “Desert Moon,” tour manager Daniel Biechele lit four large gerbs. The pyrotechnics ignited the sound-proofing foam near the stage, and the flames licked their way up the wall. It took a moment for the crowd to realize what was happening, but records show that within 90 seconds after the fire ignited, people stampeded toward the front entrance and were crushed.
For 100 people, there was no escape.
That night, Cowesett Avenue was lined with firetrucks and ambulances from all over, as firefighters tried to save people in a nightmare scene of smoke and death.
By morning, long after the building had collapsed and the cars in the parking lot were covered in frozen spray, people were frantically trying to find their loved ones and begging for answers.
For years afterward, the scarred site was a makeshift memorial filled with wooden crosses.
Honoring lives lost, and those who survived
The three designers of the Station Fire Memorial Park — architect Stephen Greenleaf, designer Thomas Viall, and landscape architect Alan Ahlstrom — set out to develop a place that would honor those who died as well as those who survived.
Their work was personal. Viall knew the father of the youngest victim. Three of Greenleaf’s relatives escaped the fire that night.
“It even chokes me up a little now. They were extremely lucky,” Greenleaf said. “Anybody that was involved is still being affected by it.”
The designers wanted the park to show the ripple effect of the fire and the people affected by it — victims, survivors, families, friends, and first responders. And they wanted to connect it to what brought hundreds of people together that night in 2003.
“It was all about rock ‘n’ roll,” Greenleaf said.
From above, the memorial resembles the shape of a guitar. The entrance brings visitors to what looks like a small temple on a gentle slope, with brick pathways leading to a dozen circles with memorial stones for each of the 100 people who died.
Greenleaf said they wanted multiple pathways through the memorial, to give loved ones space as they visited the memorial stones and to let people meander until they reach the temple area, which has plaques with the story of the Station nightclub on the wall.
“One of the images I had was great temples were sometimes located on distant hills, but you had to go around the sides of mountains to reach them,” Greenleaf said. “You had a wandering path of discovery.”
Each memorial has the person’s name and date of birth, and nearly all have their photos. The designers borrowed an aspect of the Vietnam War Memorial designed by Maya Ying Lin and used black inserts that give viewers the effect of being connected to the dead.
“When you are reading the names, you see your own reflection, and you understand that these were people just like you,” said Ahlstrom.
The designers had the area forensically examined before starting work. They marked the corners where the nightclub had stood, and made sure none of the individual memorials were inside the building’s footprint. A capsule containing all of the crosses and memorabilia from the makeshift memorial is buried in the park.
No matter what path you choose, you end up at the temple at the back of the park, where the story of the fire is on display. For some survivors, like Russo, this is the most important place.
The plaques on the wall, one for every victim, tells the Station’s history as the fourth-deadliest fire in the country. It begins with the Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston that took the lives of 492 people in November 1942. Then it ticks forward, describing the evolution of the building that ended up becoming the Station, the history of the band Great White, the fire code safety decisions and inspections. The story marches forward by years, then days, then hours and minutes until it describes the moment the tour manager lit the pyrotechnics. The story unwinds with the aftermath and the loss and changes that followed.
As Viall researched and designed the story for the plaques, he thought about his former coworker, Dave Kane, whose son died in the fire. Nick O’Neill was just 18, and the youngest victim.
Viall went to O’Neill’s memorial service, where the church was packed with young people. “I remember seeing Dave at the memorial and wondering what to say,” Viall said.
Viall was searching for words again as he wrote the story for the plaques. What should be the final thought?
Then, he realized he needed only one word.
“It is ‘remember,’” Viall said. “It’s a place that I wanted people to go and reflect and honor — it’s all that, but that nobody forgets what happened there.”
Learning from the past, looking to the future
Nick O’Neill would be 38 now. His parents will always wonder what he would have accomplished with his life.
Dave Kane last saw his son when he dropped the boy off at a friend’s house that day. Great White’s lead singer, Jack Russell, had invited O’Neill to play pool with the band before the show. O’Neill, a performer and music lover, was so excited.
“Do not fear to hope,” O’Neill concluded a play he wrote at age 16, about teenagers who become angels, which he titled “They Walk Among Us.”
Kane paused as he recited that last line. For 20 years, he and Nick’s mother, Joanne, have been searching for meaning in his life and death. “You can let it defeat you or decide to turn it around and make something good of it,” Kane said.
He uses the present tense when he talks about Nick. He feels as if the boy is still with them. There are signs in flashing light bulbs, passing license plates, and the appearance of his favorite number, 41, which is also title of a documentary about Nick’s life.
They don’t feel his presence at Mount St. Mary Cemetery where he is buried. They will visit the Station Fire Memorial Park, the place he was last alive.
More than a memorial, the park is a reminder for future generations about how tragedies happen, Kane said.
“The site is not about the people who passed and were injured, it’s about letting people know that when they don’t do the job, people die,” Kane said. “They wouldn’t have this if some hadn’t broken the laws and if it hadn’t been overcrowded. That’s what it means to me.”
Joe Cristina, who took the last photo inside the building, said that he has moved on. “I just have the attitude that life is too short. Take every day as a blessing,” he said.
Cristina went to the show with his friend, Matthew Pickett. When the fire broke out, Pickett urged him to take a picture. They just assumed that someone had a fire extinguisher.
Cristina ended up crawling out a window, but Pickett never made it out. Cristina named his son after his friend. The boy is now 14. Pickett is forever 33.
Greenleaf is now a building official in Bristol. When he collaborates with the fire marshal, and they talk about sprinklers, materials, and how people can get out of a building safely, they will drift off into a conversation about how things have changed since the Station fire in 2003.
“People have to understand that there needs to be a certain amount of regulation and control by the powers that be for the public safety aspect. When all of those pieces don’t fall together, you have tragedies that happen,” Ahlstrom said. “That’s why we have to remember. It’s not just remembering the people, it’s remembering the events, and why we need to remember these events.”
More photos and articles about the Station nightclub fire:
- Scenes from the Station nightclub fire, 2003
- The Station nightclub fire, photos from 2013
- Owners of The Station nightclub finally discuss the deadly 2003 fire: ‘We certainly played a role. But the systems failed.’
- Father of youngest Station nightclub fire victim questions why owners are finally coming forward
- A new book from a former Channel 6 news director examines the Station nightclub fire
- The Station fire takes big toll on survivors
- From 2003: In seconds, elation turned to horror
- 10 years later: Stories from survivors of the fire
- Coverage from the 10th anniversary of the fire
- Great White’s front man has struggled with the Station fire’s legacy
Amanda Milkovits can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMilkovits.