Great White Concert Tragedy, Ten Years Later: Fire Survivors, Responders Remember

To pyro or not to pyro? Ten years after one of the deadliest nightclub fires in history, at a Rhode Island gig by the band Great White, plenty of rock fans can't see the most basic sparks go off on stage without flashing back to the news that 100 fans died on the night of Feb. 20, 2oo3 at the Station club. How much more traumatic, we can only imagine, to be one of the 663 people who did escape from the concert with their lives.

Some of those survivors have worked through their trauma to become advocates for fire safety, in and out of rock shows. One of those original Great White ticketholders is Rob Feeney, who spent the day before the 10th anniversary on Capitol Hill. He and former fireman Peter Ginaitt, one of the first responders at the scene that fateful night, were lobbying legislators for a bill that would offer tax incentives to aging businesses that install fire sprinklers.

"The timing couldn't be better," says Feeney, who stops to consider how the word "better" sounds in this context. "It’s unfortunate, coming on the 10th anniversary and having to do it after the Brazil fire. But sometimes it takes something like that for people to listen."

Ten years haven't dulled the pain for Feeney. "I was there with five people, and two of us survived," he says. One of the three companions who was among the 100 fatalities that night was his fiancee.

The Station fire of 2003 was the fourth deadliest nightclub blaze in U.S. history—though it wasn't nearly as fatal as the fire in a Brazilian nightclub last month that killed at least 239 people. Interestingly, the former Rhode Island attorney general who spearheaded the criminal investigation of the Station fire, Patrick C. Lynch, is in Brazil right now, spending the anniversary working with investigators in that country.

The Station fire began right at the start of Great White's set—the third of the night at the packed club—when a tour manager set off some pyro that immediately lit up acoustic foam that was, obviously, highly flammable.

"People think, 'Oh, I’d have plenty of time to get out'," says Ginaitt, the former firefighter who went on to push through sprinkler bills later as a Rhode Island stage legislator. "But because Great White was the third band that was playing, people had had a couple drinks, were relaxed,and high just in anticipation of a really good time, never imagining that one stupid move with pyrotechnics would cause a tragedy." But even if they'd all been sober as a church mouse and on paranoid high alert, that wouldn't have helped them all get out, he points out. "Fire was beating people to the door. It was only one minute and 16 seconds before exits were impassible in the Station fire. That's a lot less than half the length of the average song." It was another four minutes, with all those confused people trapped and facing no viable exits, before the club was fully engulfed.

Love of music pulled Feeney into this tragedy and, to some extent, it was love of music that helped get him past it over the course of the last decade. And that included getting back on the horse, as it were, and going out to live shows.

"If I wasn’t able to listen to music, I don’t think I would have made it through the illness" of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Feeney says. "I could sit in a room with 200 people and feel all alone. Part of the way I dealt with it the first few years was to put my own CDs together, in a specific order of songs that had to have meaning, and every song had to be something that I was feeling or thinking about, and that made you just think, 'I’m not alone. Whoever wrote that song, they wrote it because I needed it.' I had to feel like someone knew what I was thinking and feeling, and music can do that, no matter what the situation is. So it wasn’t long before I wanted to get back out and hear live music again."

What songs helped him through? "There are some Tesla songs that helped, like 'Love Song.' They played it for us at a benefit, and that song means a lot to us survivors. Creed’s 'My Sacrifice' is kind of an anthem that we’ve had all along in memory of everyone that we lost...

"I lost my fiancée in the fire, and soon before the fire I got her into Trans-Siberian Orchestra's music," Feeney recalls. "I took her to see them in Providence in December of 2002, and there was something about seeing that show and the music and the message behind it, of Christmas and family, where it was kind of that point that we looked at each other and were like 'We’re gonna get married.' So I think that band will always have a personal place in my heart, really."

Has he been able to listen to Great White in the last 10 years? That's a tough one. "I still have Great White CDs and music books to play guitar on"—but he hasn't deliberately played them. "I enjoyed them so much. And Mark Kendall is a great guitarist with a blues background and was an influence on me wanting to learn guitar. So, never say never. There have been times I've turned on the radio or it’s played in a store I’ve been in, and their song is on and I’ll catch myself singing along to it, and all of a sudden I'm like 'Oh my God, I’m singing to Great White.' When you’re healing, you catch yourself doing things that you used to do. And I guess I used to feel bad, like 'Oh my God, I can’t be listening to this, I can’t be enjoying this.' I don’t go out of my way to listen to them, but if the song comes on I still like the music, and I don’t think it’s wrong now for me to still enjoy something like that."

Who does he blame? "I think the responsibility is shared in a wide range. The club owners, absolutely, have a responsibility to take care of their customers and employees and provide a safe environment. The band, they’re hired help, and they also have an expectation of safety when they’re working in a club. In Great White’s case, should they have known better than to use pyrotech? Yeah, they should have. But how much of it is on them to say, 'All right, at this club we can’t do it,' if they’re told 'No, we’ve had pyro in here before'? I don’t think it was responsible of them—it was a pretty small venue—but it should come down to the club, with what’s allowed inside and the safety.

"In the case of Station fire, I had as a patron an expectation of safety, but I was also wrong. There weren’t sprinklers, there weren’t even fire extinguishers nearby, and the bouncers were poorly trained on how to get people out of the building... I guess one more area of responsibility is the legislature. It just came up in Rhode Island that after everything we went through with the nightclub fire there, it’s been 5-7 years since most of the clubs in Providence were inspected. So they did a great job of changing the laws and making it look like it’s a safer place, but no one’s following up."

No other states have passed the same stringent laws about sprinklers that Rhode Island did, and that's what the lobbying is about in D.C. this week.

"I was a firefighter for 21 years, and we never lost a firefighter in a building that had sprinklers," says Ginaitt. "The station fire, to be honest, the DA did a study right after the fire when they were doing the after-action, and that entire tragedy would have been eliminated by two sprinkler heads. Those are the type of statistics that are just alarming, that we haven’t moved forward in this nation trying to promote the use and installation of standing fire suppression systems. They’re not high-tech—I mean, this is water.

"I spent a career as a firefighter, and I’ll tell you every firefighter that was there that night, myself included, it's something in our minds that we’ll never forget. Most firefighters never have to see something like that in their careers. A decade later, it’s still as vivid to me today as it probably will be 20 years from now. History will repeat itself. Where, when, that remains to be seen."

Businesses object to legislation mandating sprinklers in even grandfathered buildings because of the cost, he says. "This is one of those things that is an investment in their building that nobody’s really gonna see. It takes fortitude, gumption, legislative initiative, and testicular fortitude, to put it that bluntly. We see a nation that passes tax incentives for energy efficiency or a whole number of things—tax incentives for NASCAR!—and this is one thing that will impact every constituency, every senator, every congressman, every state, in trying to provide a safer country… This really is a no-brainer. As we go down this road 10 years later, it amazes me that we’re still sitting here trying to debate how to do this."

In the Station fire, only 132 escaped out without harm. Besides the 100 killed, 230 were injured. Feeney was one of those, spending a month in the hospital, before he had two follow-up surgeries. His psychological recovery was much, much longer. "The mental and emotional, it’s everyday. I still have my moments," he says. "I don’t have flashbacks, I don’t have nightmares about it anymore. I know I handle things different. I know my triggers or what’s gonna give me a bad night or a bad week. It’s learning to deal with emotions when they happen, and that’s how you’re able to move on or overcome it. But it took over five years for other people to see the signs [of PTSD] and for me to actually get help that I needed for mental and emotional trauma."

Feeney became a vocal enough advocate for survivors that he has been sent out on the road by the Phoenix Society for burn victims as well as Common Voices. In Chattanooga recently, he was sent to testify before a city council that was considering a sprinkler bill that was—if you'll pardon the phrase—about to go down in flames. After his emotional testimony, the bill passed. "I don’t know why I was chosen," he says, considering the mixed blessing.

The aftermath for others involved in the fire has been equally mixed. Great White's tour manager, Danel Biechele, was charged with 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter and pleaded guilty, ultimately serving less than two years of his 15-year sentence. Some of the survivors and their families supported his parole, not feeling that he held the ultimate blame for the disaster. The Station's owners, Michael and Jeffrey Derderian, pleaded no contest, with Michael receiving a 15-year sentence and Jeffrey a suspended 10-year sentence. In civil suits, hundreds of millions of dollars have crossed hands in settlements.

Great White has existed under a cloud for the last 10 years. It wasn't just their image that was scathed: Guitarist Ty Longley perished in the fire, too. In January, singer Jack Russell announced plans to put on a February club show in California that would benefit a victims' memorial, but the intended charity said "no thanks" to the offer. "We feel that the upset caused by his involvement would outweigh the amount of funds raised at this event," said Victoria Egan, VP of the Station Fire Memorial Foundation, which is trying to raise $1 million for the memorial. Russell announced in return that he would find a different charity and said, "I am utterly saddened by the response of the foundation and the motives behind it.” Although it seemingly had less to do with post-fire issues than band in-fighting, Great White as a band is, at this point, inactive.