54 Dead In Fire At Great White Concert, Guitarist Among Missing

By | February 21, 2003 at 12:00 AM

A fast-moving fire – ignited by an indoor pyrotechnics display during a concert – killed at least 54 people late Thursday at a Providence, Rhode Island-area nightclub, officials said.

West Warwick Town Manager Wolfgang Bauer said that emergency officials have confirmed 39 deaths and at have counted at least 15 more bodies that are still in the rubble of The Station club.

“The building was well involved inside of three minutes,” said Fire Chief Charlie Hall, who told reporters that the building had no sprinklers because its relatively small size didn’t require them.

“The whole place got tons of black smoke. We were breathing black smoke,” clubgoer Lisa Shea told CNN Friday morning. “I got knocked on the ground. People were standing on my back, my head. I was holding my head and I said, ‘I’m going to die here!’ All I could think about was my mother, and I said, ‘I got to get up! I got to get up!'”

The fire broke out around 11 p.m. Thursday at a concert featuring the 1980s metal group Great White, known for its hit song “Once Bitten, Twice Shy.” One of the group’s guitarists, Ty Longley, was among the missing.

“I’m so sad. It’s just such a tragedy. I’m really shocked right now,” said Great White lead singer Jack Russell in an emotional interview Friday morning.

At least 168 people were injured in the fire and taken to nearby hospitals, according to hospital officials. Several were flown to the nearest burn centers in Massachusetts.

Hall said most of the bodies have been recovered from near the front entrance of the building and that the fire itself was “the main contributing factor” to their deaths.

Crowd cheers as flames spread

“Human nature being what it is, they tried to go out the same way they came in” and were trapped, Hall said. “That was the problem.”

All of the building’s four fire exits were functioning, he said, and firefighters arrived quickly and managed to rescue about 100 people.

Hall also said the building’s capacity was 300, and fewer people than that number were at the club. The Station passed its fire inspection on December 31, 2002, with some minor violations that were corrected, Hall said.

Brousseau said investigators, searching the nightclub’s charred site for more victims and to determine how the blaze spread so quickly, were waiting for the arrival of some heavy equipment to move unstable parts of the destroyed building.

He said the investigation had so far revealed that the club probably did not have a permit for the band’s fireworks as required by state law, but could not say if the club, the band or both would eventually be held responsible.

Video shot by CNN affiliate WPRI showed Great White performing as on-stage fireworks went off in the background. As the crowd cheered, fire engulfed the wall behind the stage and quickly spread.

Some didn’t realize fire not intentional

Initially, fans casually made their way toward the exit. Then panic broke out, according to videographer Brian Butler, who was taping the rock concert for a story on nightclub safety.

“It was that fast. As soon as the pyrotechnics stopped, the flame had started on the egg-crate [foam] backing behind the stage and it just went up the ceiling and people stood and watched it,” Butler said.

The video showed piles of people lying on top of each other, trying to push their way out of the club.

“Some people were already trying to leave and others were just sitting there going ‘Yeah that’s great!’ and I remember that statement because I was like, ‘This is not great, this is time to leave,'” the videographer said.

As the flames spread inside the one-story building, band members jumped off the stage and joined the crowd, heading toward the exit.

“We rarely use pyrotechnics,” Russell told WCVB-TV. “We use them when we get permission from the club.”

Longley, the missing guitarist and a Pennsylvania native, has been playing with the band for three years.

“We’re still looking for him,” Russell said. “I’m going to check the hospitals. That’s my main concern right now is to find him. After 25 years in show business, nothing like this has ever happened.”

“What do you say? Gee, I’m sorry? That just doesn’t cut it,” the lead singer said. “There’re no words to express how I feel right now. I’m devastated.”

‘How could this happen?’

At least 52 people were taken to nearby Kent Hospital, most in serious to critical condition with first, second and third-degree burns, a hospital spokesman said. Four patients were then flown to Boston and Worcester, Massachusetts.

Rhode Island’s Gov. Don Carcier called the incident a “terrible, terrible tragedy.”

“There are going to be all kinds of questions about ‘How could this happen?’ ‘Why did this happen?’ ‘How was this allowed to occur?'” the governor said. “The fire marshal says it was not permitted. So why did this go on?”

On Monday, 21 people died and more than 50 were injured in a stampede at a Chicago nightclub, after a security guard used pepper spray to break up a fight.

The worst nightclub fire in U.S. history occurred November 28, 1942, at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston, Massachusetts. That inferno, fed by decorations in the ritzy nightspot, left 492 people dead.

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