Monday, February 20, 2012

Station Nightclub Fire, eleven days after...

One of the hundreds of stories The Providence Journal published in the first year after the tragedy alone. This was 11 days out, before the 100th person died.

Copyright 2003 Providence Journal.

LIVING IN A WOUNDED STATE - A SPECIAL SECTION - The Station nightclub fire takes an emotional toll on virtually every Rhode Islander, from Little Compton to Burrillville.

G. WAYNE MILLER Publication Date: March 2, 2003 Page: A-01 Section: Special Edition: All

WEST WARWICK - They come at dawn, during the lunch hour, after the winter sun has set. Some tuck flowers into the fence that encircles charred wood and misshapen metal, the physical remains of the worst fire in Rhode Island history. Some leave candles. Some leave balloons or American flags.

Others leave teddy bears, or photographs, or poems they have written. An elderly man carrying a sheet of paper approaches a large cross and says: "Can I put this here? This is a prayer I wrote for 9/11." A woman buries her face in her hands and sobs. Then she reaches for a box of tissues beneath the only thing spared by the inferno, a sign that reads: "The Station, Live Music."

This is our ground zero.

This is where almost 100 mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers - most of them Rhode Islanders, all of them people with a zest for living - died in a holocaust of smoke, gas and flame.

This is where another nearly 200 were injured and burned, some so severely that jewelry and, in one case, a chipped tooth, were needed to identify them.

This is the source of the raw emotions that have consumed Rhode Islanders and Southern New Englanders for 10 interminable days - emotions that will persist, in one form or another, for years.

A cold wind blows across the wreckage. The wind buffets the balloons and flags and sends forth the smell of death. Most of the national TV crews have left, but the flow of local visitors continues unabated. They come to the fence solemnly but with purpose, as one approaches an open casket at a wake.

"We knew just one person, but it touched us so much. It touches everyone in Rhode Island," says Mark Saucier, 42, of Warwick.

Atty. Gen. Patrick Lynch said much the same when he appeared last week on NBC's Today. "They say there are six degrees of separation in this world," Lynch said. "In Rhode Island, there's a degree and a half. The pain rips through this community quicker than any other."

Lynch and Saucier speak the truth. Rhode Island is the smallest state, and the million people living within its compressed borders make it a village. If you don't know someone who was at The Station on Feb. 20, then you probably know someone who did. And if you are the exception, you cannot ignore the news, magnified in a state where the longest drive, from Burrillville to Little Compton, can be completed in well under two hours.

Saucier has come here to Cowesett Avenue with his wife, Renee, 30, and their son, Zachory, who is 3. Renee bundles the boy against the wind. He takes in the scene without saying anything. "He saw it on TV and he knows people passed in it," says Saucier. "Just like with the shuttle Columbia."

"He's 3 but he's very intelligent," Renee says.

"We just had to come," her husband says.

THE FIELDS of Little Compton slumber under snow. Ice has locked in the ponds, and at Sakonnet Vineyards, workers prune vines and fix broken posts in preparation for spring. A tractor pulls a trailer down a winding gravel road. The air has the crisp bite of deep winter, which this year refuses to release New England.

No one from Little Compton is known to have died in The Station fire, and apparently no one was injured. This is no surprise. A town of 3,593 where oceanfront properties cost millions of dollars, Little Compton is home to farmers, executives and others unlikely to attend a heavy-metal concert in an old mill town on the far side of Narragansett Bay.

But even here, in the quaint confines of Rhode Island's second-least-populated community, escape from The Station fire is impossible.

"I can't stop thinking about it," says Ann Flather, an assistant at Sakonnet Vineyards, during a break from her duties in the main office. "I just find it devastating. You think of what they were thinking when they were in there. It gives you the creeps. It's horrible."

Flather does not know anyone involved in the fire; her connection to the tragedy is through the media, with their unforgettable accounts and images, that extraordinary videotape of the fire catching inside the club playing over and over on TV.

Sue Souza, the vineyard controller, does not know anyone, either - nor did she think she was a degree and a half away. Not until Monday evening, when she visited her hairdresser, and the hairdresser broke down in tears.

"A friend of hers," Souza says, "is a patient at Shriners in Boston. She's severely burned. They're going to have to amputate one arm and her other hand."

"So she's going to have nothing left," Flather says. She stops, the enormity of what she has heard sinking in.

"It kind of hit home a little more then," Souza continues. "It wasn't just something that happened in West Warwick - it was, 'Oh, this was a real person.' "

Debbie Marion, tasting-room manager, has been listening to her fellow workers. "Oh, God, I just got an e-mail from a good friend of mine," she says. "He works for the West Warwick Fire Department. He happened to take that shift on overtime." Marion's friend was uninjured during his eight hours at The Station, and now he is taking a vacation.

"It sounds like he just needed to get out," Marion says.

THE BREAKFAST crowd at JP's Place, a restaurant on Chapel Street in Burrillville, is thinning; Burrillville is a working-class town, and by 8 o'clock, work beckons. But a few diners linger this morning. The coffee is fresh. An order of bacon and eggs cooks on the grill in the kitchen out back, filling the place with a comforting aroma.

Abbie L. Hoisington, 28, a teacher at Burrillville High School who lived in Cranston, died inside The Station. The high school held two assemblies for students after her death was confirmed, and dozens of teachers attended her funeral on Thursday. In the lower grades, teachers talked to younger students about the tragedy, noting the lessons that should be drawn. "Don't use fireworks inside," one third-grade teacher advised pupils.

"I didn't know Abbie personally, but students who came in here had her in study," says Flora Phaneuf, a waitress who lives in Pascoag.

The tragedy burrowed into Phaneuf's consciousness early on Friday, Feb. 21, the same time that it entered the heads of millions of others. "I actually heard it on the radio on the way to work at 5:30 in the morning," Phaneuf says. "At that point, it was just a bad fire with fatalities. I believe the number then was around 10. That was horrific."

It was merely a portend: throughout that awful day, the body count kept climbing, until, incredibly, it seemed it would approach 100. Diners at JP's listened to the developing news over two radios, one in front with Phaneuf, the other out back with the cook. At some point, the cook shut his off. It was more than he could take.

Phaneuf kept hers on, refusing on some level to believe what she was hearing. "I think you kind of go into a self-protection mode as the reports come in," she says. "It's too much to bear at once."

Phaneuf thought of her daughter, 19, who frequents clubs: "That could have been her," she says. She answered calls from worried friends, including one in Missouri who used to live in Rhode Island. And she discovered that a neighbor who is a supervisor in a Warwick nursing home had lost two employees, with a third hospitalized. Another degree and a half of separation.

Phaneuf describes the sorrow, if not the grief, that she is certain all Rhode Islanders are experiencing. "The feeling is the same whether you lost someone or not," she says, tears filling her eyes. "The same as 9-11. This may not have that scope, but it has the same feeling."

Pascoag contractor Leo Felice, one of Phaneuf's lingering customers, agrees. Another emotion, one closer to anger, surfaces.

"Things happen every day," Felice says. "What underscores this tragedy is it was completely avoidable. It's not like a plane accident." Felice notes that The Station had no sprinklers, and that the foam soundproofing ignited by band Great White's pyrotechnics was not fire-retardant.

THE MAIN broadcast studio of WPRO-AM, in East Providence, provides barely enough room for the controls, a television, computer monitors, an on-air personality, a producer and a guest. Soundproofing covers the upper walls and a small window overlooks Wampanoag Trail. This is the afternoon world of talk-show host Dan Yorke, a perceptive observer of Rhode Island culture.

It is nearing 4:30 in the afternoon, and, on the studio TV, Yorke has just watched Lynch at a news briefing in Cranston. Lynch has been trying to coax Jeff Derderian, one of The Station's co-owners, into answering questions, thus far without success. As the afternoon wears on, about half of Yorke's callers criticize the attorney general. The other half defend him.

Days after the fire, the radio discourse has entered what Yorke calls the "what-the-hell-happened' phase." And some people are seeking villains. Derderian and his brother Michael have been denounced, along with members of Great White. Momentum builds to assess blame.

"I just think Patrick Lynch is so far over his head," says caller Mario.

"Like a frightened teenager," says Marie.

"Let this thing play out and then judge the attorney general," counters Joe.

"We've got to remember that at the root of this is terrible pain, terrible hopelessness," David offers.

Yorke takes the middle position: Lynch's performance at the briefing was weak, he argues, but the attorney general, like so many others, seems exhausted. Yorke likes Lynch, but he nonetheless is critical when he appears as an in-studio guest later that afternoon.

Six o'clock comes, Lynch leaves, and Yorke departs the studio for his desk in a room across the hall. With the exception of a week ago Sunday, when he listened to WPRO-AM over his own radio on a day off, Yorke has been on the air every day since Friday, Feb. 21. He has heard untold hundreds of callers from throughout southern New England, and witnessed the shifts in emotion. They continue to shift.

"I think there are four phases," Yorke says. "I think there is the shock-horror phase. I think there's the deep-sadness-and-paralysis phase. I think there's the 'hey-what's-going-on' phase. And then we might have either the resolve and/or the anger phase."

A native of New Jersey, Yorke is now a solid Rhode Islander, a member of the village.

"It's kind of like we get kicked in the head together, we have our own 'woe-is-me' together, we have our own what I call 'Rhode-apathy' together over the frustration of not having a government that serves us but not doing anything about it because we're complacent.

"But we also have a tight-knittedness in this village mentality that is probably unduplicated anywhere in the country. Because of that, does anybody escape this thing? No."

IN THE HALLS of academia, in the clinics and hospitals, learned women and men study trauma and grief. They provide counseling, medications, and other care to people whose loved ones have been injured or lost to calamity. Almost always, this involves only one circle of family and friends.

"Any one of these individual tragedies happens every day: somebody gets burned in a fire, a family loses a member to a car accident," says Dr. Gregory K. Fritz, medical director of Bradley Hospital, and a professor in Brown University's department of psychiatry and human behavior.

"But when there are 97 tragedies - and then all those ripple out - it's like one huge dose of overwhelming grief and crisis and unsettling feelings."

A person may gloss over news of one stranger lost in a fire, Fritz says, but a tragedy of this magnitude unleashes a broad withering fury.

"It's just multiplied by 97 and then taken to the fifth power or something. Everyone is touched by it," Fritz says. "I don't know what would happen if this was in Montana, but my take is it would not be so powerful a reaction because Rhode Island is so physically small. And this state is built on extended family relations and personal relations."

All this is compounded by the awesome force that precipitated the tragedy: uncontrolled fire. Anyone who has ever touched a hot stove or lain too long in the sun can begin to imagine the horror of being burned alive - or surviving, only to wake up in a hospital isolation room with one's identity confirmed only by distinctive jewelry or a uniquely chipped tooth. Losing one's face is a fate almost beyond comprehension.

"Whether they live or don't, there is something horrible about that," Fritz says. "That affects us more viscerally than if someone dies of a heart attack or falls. They're still identifiable then. That sense of burning is a primal fear."

Fritz explains that it is human nature for people to seek villains in a tragedy of this order, regardless of whether the cause proves to be accidental or the result of negligence. The possibility that it could have been what Fritz calls "a random event" - the very sort of event that next time could strike unsuspecting, innocent you - is profoundly unsettling. It reminds people that life, even in little Rhode Island, always proceeds with risk.

"When something like this happens with such disastrous consequences, everyone tries to find meaning, tries to explain it," the psychiatrist says. "They try to impose blame: 'It's not just fate or bad luck.' I think people prefer evil to meaninglessness. This random thing happening challenges our sense of security."

Fritz advises families a degree and a half removed to draw together and discuss what Rhode Island has experienced these last 10 days. He suggests that donating blood or money, attending fundraisers, sending cards, or even just posting to Internet message boards can be healing.

"Even if it's just symbolic, it feels better and is much more psychologically healthy than just being passive."

AT a. SALON Galleria & Spa, on Tiogue Avenue in Coventry, a six-minute drive west of The Station nightclub, clients chat with their stylists as hair is cut, nails done. Soft-rock music fills the room. Like a glass of wine, an hour at a salon is one of life's sweet pleasures.

Life goes on in Coventry, but what happened on Feb. 20 weakened its pulse. Nine residents of Coventry died, along with at least two others who had recently moved away. Warwick lost more people, 10 - but the town of Coventry, with 33,668 residents, is less than half the size of that city. If torment can be measured by such grim ratios, Coventry is particularly cursed.

"The last few days it's been very somber, very quiet," says Kristen Pope, 22, who owns the Galleria salon with her parents, Alison and Richard. "I've had a lot of cancellations from people that are attending funerals or wakes or memorials. The first question on everyone's mouth is: 'Did you know someone?' "

Almost universally in Coventry, the answer is yes.

Pope has lived most of her life in town. She was with girlfriends at a club in North Providence the night of Feb. 20 when her cell phone rang. It was a few minutes past 11 o'clock.

The caller, Ricky Pimental, the West Warwick man she is dating, did not say hello. "Where are you?" is all he said.

"I'm in North Providence," Pope answered.

"Turn on Channel 10."

"Why?"

"The Station just went up in smoke."

Pope went to a TV and saw the fire being broadcast live. Pimental drove to The Station, to see if he could help. He could not get close enough to help.

But he got close enough to see.

"It looks like 9-11," he said on his next call to Pope. "It smells awful. I can't believe this. I can't believe this."

A few minutes later, Pope's mother called.

"I'm not there," the young woman said.

"Come home," her mother demanded.

Pope watched TV until 5 o'clock that Friday morning. It was a long, tear-filled night, one haunted by unanswerable questions. How could it happen in Rhode Island? Pope thought. How could so many innocent lives be taken in a matter of seconds for no reason?

The weekend came and Pope, like so many, waited for the names of the victims to be released. Pope did not know anyone who died, but she found her degree and a half of separation: Jason Sylvester, 24, of Coventry, and Alfred Crisostomi, 38, of Warwick. Both men died.

"I graduated with Jay Sylvester's brother, Jeff," Pope says. "And my friend Melissa's boyfriend - his brother was killed, Al Crisostomi."

Now, several days after the last flames were extinguished, Pope is turning her thoughts to good. She has organized what she calls a "relief salon-a-thon"; tomorrow, from noon to 7 p.m., the Galleria will offer hair cuts, manicures and pedicures for a donation of at least $5, a sizeable discount. All proceeds will go to the United Way's The Station Nightclub Fire Relief Fund.

"It's a shame that it takes tragedy for everyone to come together," Pope says, "but hopefully once this all settles down, it doesn't lose its effect. I hope that everybody will kind of just stick together. These families are going to need a lot of emotional support after this is done."

A VAN STOPS on Cowesett Avenue. The door opens and a woman in a wheelchair is lowered to the street.

Kathy DiRocco, 47, of Warwick, suffers from scleroderma, a chronic and potentially fatal disease that can afflict the skin, muscles, joints and internal organs, including the heart. DiRocco's skin is mottled and her hands are misshapen. But she can hold her bouquet of flowers.

Accompanied by her mother, Kathleen Cronin, 72, and her aunt, Ann Scotti, 68 - each of whom is carrying her own bouquet - DiRocco steers herself toward the crowd at the fence encircling the remains of The Station. She does not know anyone injured or killed in the fire, but one of her sons knows someone who knows someone else who escaped without harm.

"We wanted to do something - bring the flowers and give a donation," DiRocco says. "My kids will give blood later when supplies are low."

"We're praying for the souls and the families left behind," Cronin says.

"And for the people in the hospital," DiRocco says.

The wind blows, sending forth its unwelcome odor. The sun breaks through the clouds, but the rubble stays a terrible shade of black.

This is the place at the center of stories that grandchildren will hear, of stories that will persist in anniversary commemorations.

If House Speaker William J. Murphy, of West Warwick, has his way, this is the place that will become a permanent memorial to so many lost and broken lives.

This is the place that binds us all now.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Warwick Beacon story

A very nice feature story in The Warwick Beacon on Feb. 8 about the Pell bio and my Warwick Public Library talk last night, which went well, BTW. My thanks to Joe Kernan, who penned the article.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

This Thursday, A Writer's Life

... for a tour through some places my writing has brought me over the years: toy companies, the halls of Congress, Newport mansions, NASCAR, operating rooms galore, animal-experimentation labs, old TB sanatoriums, etc. The people, of course, are what has made these many journeys so interesting. The program is at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012, I will be speaking at the Warwick Public Library. The PowerPoint slides will nicely illustrate my talk. For the first time in public, I will also read from the novel I have been writing, and am still writing (and writing and writing).