For years after her uncle was killed in the Station nightclub fire, leaving behind four children, Christina Pimentel could not bring herself to drive by the site in West Warwick, R.I. It was just too painful.
But slowly, she and other family members and survivors began to visit.
Every year on her uncle’s birthday, she would bring flowers. Her father put up a cross. One of her uncle’s children — who were all under 14 when he was killed — brought a toy motorcycle, a memento of one of Carlos Pimentel’s favorite pastimes.
Now, 14 years after 100 people were killed in one of the nation’s deadliest nightclub disasters, the flowers, crosses, and teddy bears that family members brought have been buried beneath a permanent memorial that will be dedicated at a ceremony on Sunday.
The completion of the park marks an emotional milestone for survivors and family members who labored for years to transform the site from a scene of charred ruins into a quiet place with gardens and stone walkways to remember the dead.
“You don’t think of all the horror that happened,” said Pimentel, a lifelong West Warwick resident and board member of the Station Fire Memorial Foundation, which guided the project. “You just think of somewhere peaceful and beautiful.”
The park is designed to evoke the music that brought the victims together to see the band Great White perform on Feb. 20, 2003.
Images of the 100 victims have been engraved with their birth dates on granite markers shaped like speaker boxes. The gateway, viewed from above, resembles the neck of a guitar. Circular benches feature reliefs of the plastic adapters that fit in the middle of 45 r.p.m. records.
“We all went out for music,” said Cara Kaczmarczyk, who survived the fire along with her husband. “That’s what we all love.”
Gina Russo, who was burned over 40 percent of her body and lost her fiancé in the disaster, said the completion of the park feels like a moment of catharsis.
As president of the Station Fire Memorial Foundation, she said she had to negotiate the sometimes conflicting wishes of victims’ families, all of whom had strong feelings about what the memorial should include. She said she also had to contend with her own guilt about having survived a blaze that claimed so many lives.
“It’s been a lot of blood, sweat, and tears — a lot of tears,” Russo said. “And some days, there’s sort of a lift up. I can say I’ve done this. I can let it go now. I can say I’ve done everything possible to honor 100 people.”
The disaster was the fourth deadliest nightclub fire in American history, and the worst to ever hit the tiny state of Rhode Island.
It started just after 11 p.m. when the band’s tour manager lit a pyrotechnic display that ignited foam insulation lining the walls and ceiling of the stage. Flames tore along the ceiling over the dance floor and, in less than five minutes, shot through the roof of the one-story wood-frame club. The building was not equipped with sprinklers and a crush of people at the main entrance made it difficult to escape. In addition to the 100 killed, 230 were injured.
In 2006, club owners Jeffrey and Michael Derderian and Great White tour manager Daniel Biechele were convicted of 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter.
In the years after the catastrophe, mourners brought crosses and pictures of their loved ones to the site, but were unable to acquire the land from the property owner, Raymond Villanova, and turn it into a permanent memorial. Frustration mounted until 2012 when Villanova agreed to transfer the weed-strewn plot to the Station Fire Memorial Foundation.
Victims’ families then began the arduous task of fund-raising and eventually collected $2 million. To clear the site for construction, the crosses, photos and stuffed animals had to be removed. But family members felt the objects were too precious to discard, so they buried them in two concrete vaults by the entrance.
“Those were people’s memories,” Kaczmarczyk said.
Now, family members are gearing up for Sunday when Governor Gina Raimondo and former governor Donald Carcieri will help dedicate the site.
“This is something that has been a labor of love, from all of us,” Pimentel said. “It’s long overdue, but it’s finally time.”Michael Levenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.