Bound by tragedy
After the Station nightclub fire, friendships are forged among the survivors
By Bella English, Globe Staff, 2/19/2004
WEST WARWICK, R.I. -- A year ago, many of them were strangers. Fate, and fire, brought them together. United by a love of heavy metal music, they were at the Station Nightclub last Feb. 20 to see the band Great White. Around 11 p.m., just after lead singer Jack Russell had sung the first verse of "Desert Moon," the place went up in flames.
Ignited by stage pyrotechnics and fueled by cheap soundproofing foam, the fire turned the club into a tomb for 100 and an inferno for 200 more who were badly injured. As the smoke cleared, the dead were buried while the injured remained in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and nursing homes, some for months. A year later, the survivors are left with physical and emotional scars, unpaid bills, and uncertain futures. They are also left with one another. Solid friendships have been forged, borne out of the simple question, "Were you there?"
But something more practical has also emerged: the Station Family Fund, founded and run by survivors themselves. A year ago, some of them helped pull others to safety. Now they are again offering a hand, survivors helping survivors. There's no overhead or red tape and there are no salaries. Meetings are at the home of the fund's treasurer, Donna Reis, who suffered second and third-degree burns in the fire and lost her fiance, who died after pushing her to safety. The group has raised about $225,000 so far, much of it from benefit concerts and T-shirt sales, and given nearly all of it away. "If you ask for help, you get it that day," says Todd King, the fund's burly vice president, who, along with his wife, escaped uninjured that night.
The fund's president is 28-year-old Victoria Potvin, who suffered second-degree burns on her hands and arms. "We've gotten very close. Half of us would be in a mental institution if it weren't for each other." She looks around the table at other board members. "These people sitting here, I didn't know a year ago. Now we're best friends."
The survivors share grief, anger, and guilt. They share memories of bodies piled on top of each other at the crowded exit, of fists pounding in vain on plexiglass windows, of terrified screams. But more than anything, they share a determination to help others who were there. There's something empowering, they feel, about victims helping victims.
"If there's a hell, that was it," says King, 34, who lives in Framingham. "People were running out fully engulfed in flames." He helped pull others to safety, but he doesn't feel his job is done yet. "It's not something you walk away from," he says. "You find the people. You find out what they need. We're family now, there's no doubt about that."
Finding the people wasn't difficult. Many had been going into Internet chat rooms as they recovered, and an online survivors' group was formed. Soon, stories began circulating about how a charity fund set up for the victims wasn't sufficient. The Station Family Fund was born.
After the fire, Rhode Island, as much a neighborhood as a state, responded with an outpouring of money; many of the clubgoers were young, blue-collar workers who lived paycheck to paycheck. The nonprofit Rhode Island Foundation was named executor and established the Station Nightclub Fire Relief Fund. So far, it has distributed more than $2 million for immediate and short-term needs, including funeral expenses. The remaining $860,000 is earmarked for long-term goals, such as providing for the 160 children whose parents died or were seriously injured in the fire, and for mental health services.
But survivors have expressed impatience with the foundation and say that emergency needs remain paramount. "People have the assumption that everybody is being financially taken care of, and it's completely inaccurate," Potvin says. "A lot of people were out of work a long time, and some still are."
Jonathan Bell is the Station Family Fund's pro bono attorney and chairman (and the only officer of the fund who was not at the Station that night). He says 70 families and individuals have been helped by the Family Fund with rent, mortgages, car payments, groceries, utilities, clothing, and home health care. The fund also keeps survivors informed about events through its website, stationfamilyfund.org.
"We make emergency payments so people don't end up on the street," Bell says. "And when a request comes to us, it's almost always an emergency."
Bell agrees that the Rhode Island Foundation should keep providing emergency funds to survivors. "They should use their much greater resources to look at emergency situations. Don't save it for a rainy day. The rainy day is now."
Rick Schwartz, a spokesman for the foundation, says the criticism is unfair. The fund, which spent more than $100,000 in January assisting survivors, was never meant to offer permanent support, he says, and the victims need to rely on Social Security disability benefits to help cover their living expenses. He concedes, though, that many of those payments are insufficient.
"We were reaching a point where we were continuing people's dependence on this fund," he says. "There's a point at which you say, `We'll fund some things, but we're not going to fund others.' We're going to run out of money at some point." The foundation, he notes, is not a fund-raising group but a fund-administering group, much like the Boston Foundation.
"We're getting yelled at for simply saying, `What about the kids?' We're trying to leave some kind of footprint, besides covering immediate needs," Schwartz says.
To the Station Family Fund, the need is now. Bell tells of the badly burned woman who lost both of her hands and has three young children. "She's a very courageous person, but she needs someone there to help her clean and cook and do the laundry," Bell says. The fund hired a part-time home health aide for her and has continued to pay the bill.
There's the 18-year-old woman whose mother died in the fire; her father had taken off years earlier. Social service workers wanted to put her in a shelter, but she refused. "She was living on the streets," says King. "Then she saw someone wearing one of our T-shirts and called us. Within four days, we had her in an apartment, fully furnished. She works two jobs now."
Debra Lemay, 29, could feel her skin bubble and her cowboy hat, then hair, catch on fire as she tried to escape the flames and black smoke in the nightclub. Besides the burns, she sprained her neck and back, shattered her collarbone, tore her rotator cuff, and threw some vertebrae out of place hurling herself against a door that wouldn't open. "I was waiting to die of smoke inhalation," she says. "It was like breathing fire." She made it out through a window.
A single mother who worked for the Rhode Island Department of Mental Retardation, she remains in physical therapy several times a week. "I realize that the person I was before is gone, and I have to grieve that," she says. Once, when a friend came to her door, she told her: "If you're looking for Debbie, she's not here." The Rhode Island Foundation helped her with bills for the first three months. She has depleted her savings and gets help from the Station Family Fund: rent, heat, and Christmas toys for her two sons.
At Christmas, the group threw a party with food, entertainment, and gifts for families; a survivor served as Santa. The toys were stored in Donna Reis's garage, where she held a "wrap party."
One prickly question for the perpetually strapped fund has been whether to accept money from Great White, whose pyrotechnics started the fire. Fund officers ultimately decided to take the money, which so far has amounted to $70,000. "From our perspective," says Bell, "the only thing these guys know how to do is play music. Let them play music and pay back their debt to society."
Great White, which lost a band member in the blaze, has held several benefits for the fire victims. "Jack Russell was a survivor, too," says King. "He didn't just get in his car and leave. We know people need the help, so we take the money."
(In December, Jeff and Michael Derderian, the brothers who owned the nightclub, were indicted, along with Dan Biechele, Great White's tour manager who allegedly set off the pyrotechnics. They are charged with involuntary manslaughter; all three pleaded not guilty.)
Lately, there's been a flurry of fund-raising. One night last week, the band Human Clay held a benefit at a club in nearby Cranston. Family Fund board members were there to raffle off items and sell T-shirts.
Also on hand for the camaraderie -- and the cause -- were many survivors.
As Todd King hugged Debby Wagner, she squealed and reminded him that she had third-degree burns on her back. Former strangers, they are now fast friends. The night of the fire, King had taken off his Bruins jacket and put it around her shoulders as she wandered, dazed, in the Station parking lot.
"Over 400 of us went to the Station that night to escape everyday obstacles," says King. "Some of us came home, some of us didn't. But a small part of each one of us who did died that night."
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.
That's one hell of an article, Maz. Presumably Globe Staff is a newspaper?
Tragedies happen daily all over the world sadly, and as shocked as we are at the time of their occurrence, human nature carries on - it has to.
Some of the survivors in your article make you feel quite humble, and thankful to have good health, and families, and friends.
There but for the Grace of God ...
The Newspaper is the Boston Globe and I agree with you. Life is put into perspective. We need to enjoy life because we never know when it's gonna end.
These people do have a point....in another article they mention how the US seems to jump at the opportunity to help other countries including giving concerts, but when a few hundred of our own people need help the industry and government turns a blind eye.