Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Pecha Kucha, Diario de Santa Maria

THE TENTH ANNIVERSARY of The Station nightclub fire has passed.

The last installment in our Providence Journal series was published on Feb. 21, 2013. I can report that we received hundreds of thousands of page views and many comments from readers, most of them favorable. Most people, though not all, agreed with our decision to devote extensive resources to a 12-part remembrance of the tragedy. I explained our decision in an essay you can find here. I am proud to have been part of this effort.

So the tenth anniversary has passed. Over the months and years we will, of course, be writing more about the fire and its impact as developments warrant -- the construction of the permanent memorial, for example. But now, at least, it is appropriate to return to other matters. Our good thoughts and prayers, as always, remain extended to everyone.

My final public commentary will be this evening during my six minutes and 40 seconds at the 47th Providence Pecha Kucha.

AT THE REQUEST of the editors of Diário de Santa Maria, the newspaper in Santa Maria, Brazil, where almost 250 died in a similar fire last month, I also wrote an op-ed piece for that newspaper and others in parent media company Grupo RBS. We at The Journal reached out to these journalists and their readers and people almost immediately on learning about the fire at the Kiss nightclub. They were grateful for the support.

On Feb. 26, Diário de Santa Maria and other RBS papers published a special report with profiles and photos of everyone who died. It is an extraordinary effort that you can read here.

My essay was published today, in Portuguese, of course. Here is the English version:

WE HERE IN Rhode Island, U.S.A., have experienced what our friends in Santa Maria, Brazil, experience now in the wake of the terrible Kiss nightclub fire that killed 245 and injured many more. Please know that our thoughts and prayers are with you.
Ten years ago, on Feb. 20, 2003, a fire in The Station nightclub in the town of West Warwick, R.I., killed 100 people and injured more than 200.
The parallels between our fire and yours are tragically eerie: pyrotechnics igniting foam in an unsafe building overcrowded with people out for a night of fun.
Still, when we saw the headlines and TV reports last month from your city, we could not believe it. Or more accurately, we did not want to believe it. We had hoped that our fire would have been a lesson for all, that such a tragedy would never happen again.
It seems like just yesterday that our fire happened. In truth, of course, it has been a very long ten years, filled with developments, as a timeline of the last decade reveals.
WHAT BROUGHT more than 450 men and women –– some of them teenagers, some of them grandparents, most somewhere in between –– out on Feb. 20, 2003, that cold winter night here in Rhode Island? More or less the same thing that brought people into club Kiss.
The prospect of enjoyment brought them. A favorite band brought them.
This was no evening at the symphony. No woodwinds played. These were working women and men from Rhode Island and southern New England who loved a loud beat and a bar where the beer was cold and plentiful.
These were men and women remembered as good and decent by those who knew them best.
“She taught us about honesty, confidence, kindness and respect for one another and ourselves,” a student of teacher Abbie Hoisington, 28, said in a Providence Journal special edition published one month after the fire.
 “He kept us young,” said the parents of Billy Bonardi, 36.
“His kids were his life,” said the sister of Carlos Pimentel Sr., 38.
“She believed in angels,” said Patti Carbone of her sister, Kristine, 38.
“I believe she didn’t get out because she was helping. I know her personality. She was helping,” said a friend of Tammy Mattera-Housa, 29, mother of two.
“He had just turned his life around,” said the mother of Kevin Dunn, 37. “He was very happy.”
SO HERE in Rhode Island, ten years have passed.
“Safety” has become a commonly spoken word. In Rhode Island, sprinklers and other life-saving measures have been mandated by changes in fire codes. That is good that came from our fire: lawmakers and other officials moved quickly to improve the codes.
 We no longer enter closed spaces without checking for the exit signs and the best route to safety.
We know the worst that can happen.
TEN YEARS after, some people here remain angry, believing that justice was not served –– that those most responsible have not stood in public and accepted blame. Because of a plea bargain that outraged many survivors and families of victims, no trial was ever held. No owner, fire or building official, band member or other involved person was publicly questioned.
Because there was no trial, the answers that many wanted never came.
These answers might have brought a measure of peace to those most deeply affected, like Bob Johnson, 78, who lost his son Derek, 32, and who continues to fight for justice.
For people like Bob Johnson, a share of the $176 million settlement was not enough. He vows to keep fighting. “I’ll never stop,” he said. “I’ll never, ever stop.”
SOME PEOPLE of our fire remain physically and/or emotionally wounded. 
But with the help and support of relatives, friends, clergy and therapists, others have healed. Some healed more quickly. Some took longer.
Children ten years ago are now adults. Then-unborn babies who would never know their parents are children now. The days pass; life does go on.
We find hope and inspiration in the stories of some families -- the family of Melinda Darby, for example, who was eight months pregnant and had a ten-year-old daughter when her husband and their father, Matt, died.
And in the story of young Acey Longley, whose father, Great White guitarist Ty Longley, died in the fire. With his mother, Heidi Longley, Acey runs a charity that cheers sick children in the Chicago area.
We find courage and determination in the story of the most badly burned survivor, Joe Kinan, who spent months in the hospital and has undergone more than 120 operations, including a hand transplant, but who has never given up -- and who recently become engaged to the woman he loves.
We find strength in the story of survivor Gina Russo, who has been a tireless advocate for victims’ benefits, and who cherishes the many friendships formed in the aftermath of the fire. She told our newspaper: “I’m grateful that it has made me such a strong person. It really completely changed my life for the better and I don’t think I would trade that.”
AT THE PLACE in West Warwick, R.I., where men and women wanted only good times on that night ten years ago, crosses, candles and other mementos mark 100 dead. As Santa Maria now will be, West Warwick is forever associated with a terrible night.
Soon, construction will begin on a permanent memorial to the lives lost -- a place “to honor, to gather, to celebrate, to pray, to support, to educate, and most of all, to remember our 100 angels,” according to the Station Fire Memorial Foundation, entrusted with keeping the memory of everyone alive.
But that is yet to come.
On a recent morning, the morning sun spread shadows across the site where the nightclub burned -- the place many now call “sacred ground.” A frigid wind blew fresh-fallen snow, rattling the rosary beads, butterflies, hummingbirds and balloons loved ones have placed on 100 crosses. Wind chimes sent their melodies into the air. The memory of everyone was real.
For ten years, so many people have lived this.
We live it still, here in Rhode Island.
We know in a way that others cannot what you, the good people of Santa Maria and Brazil, are experiencing. May you find peace.

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