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.
After the Station fire
After the Station fire
"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."