As firefighters searched through the charred shell of the one-story wood building Friday morning, the death toll steadily rose, reaching at least 54 said West Warwick Town Manager Wolfgang Bauer.

The entire club was consumed by flames within three minutes, said Fire Chief Charles Hall.

The ’80s hard rock band Great White had just started playing Thursday night when giant pyrotechnic sparklers on stage began shooting up and ignited the ceiling above the band. Some in the crowd said they thought it was part of the act, but then the fire quickly spread, filling the building with thick, black smoke.

Robin Petrarca, 44, was standing within 5 feet of the door, but she said the billowing smoke was so thick, she couldn’t see the exit. In the rush to escape, she fell and was trampled, but made it out.

“There was nothing they could do, it went up so fast,” she said.

The fire broke out across the ceiling above the band, and quickly spread over the crowd, filling the building with thick, black smoke. The entire club was consumed by flames within three minutes, West Warwick Fire Chief Charles Hall said Friday.

He said the club had recently passed a fire inspection, but didn’t have a city permit for pyrotechnics. There was no sprinkler system.

Most of the bodies were found near the front exit, some of them burned and others dead from smoke inhalation, Hall said. He said some appeared to have been trampled in the rush to escape.

“They tried to go out the same way they came in. That was the problem,” Hall said. “They didn’t use the other three fire exits.”

The blaze broke out at about 11 p.m. during the first song of a Great White concert at The Station in West Warwick, about 15 miles southwest of Providence. A fireworks display that was part of the show apparently ignited the ceiling and sound proofing behind the stage, and flames quickly engulfed the club.

“All of a sudden I felt a lot of heat,” Jack Russell, the band’s lead singer, told CNN. “I see the foam’s on fire. … The next thing you know the whole place is in flames.”

He said he started dousing the fire with a water bottle but couldn’t put it out, then all the lights went out.

“I just couldn’t believe how fast it went up,” he said.

Hours later, only a blackened shell of the one-story building was left. Russell said one of his band members, guitarist Ty Longley, was among the missing.

It was the second deadly U.S. club disaster in four days. Early Monday, 21 people were killed and more than 50 injured during a stampede in a Chicago nightclub that began when a security guard used pepper spray to break up a fight.

In Rhode Island, more than 160 people were taken to area hospitals, Bauer said. Firefighters worked through the morning Friday to pull charred bodies from the building as onlookers watched – worried about missing friends.

“They were completely burned. They had pieces of flesh falling off them,” said Michelle Craine of West Warwick, who was waiting to hear about a friend who was missing. “It was the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”

Chaos erupted moments after the fire started. Witnesses said dozens of people dashed toward the door, and some of those who escaped were later seen staggering into a triage center. Rescuers carried dozens of people on stretchers.

Hundreds of firefighters and police from across the region and dozens of ambulances were on the scene. Rescuers were pulling badly injured victims from the fire as ladder trucks poured water over the flaming skeleton of the building.

“It was calm at first, everyone thought it was part of the act,” said John DiMeo, who was sitting at the bar near the front door when the fire started. “It happened so fast.”

Brian Butler was filming the concert for WPRI-TV and saw the flames spread across the ceiling and people rush for the doors.

“People were trying to help others and people were smashing out windows, and people were pulling on people and nobody cared how many cuts they got, nobody cared about the bruises or the burns,” Butler said. “They just wanted out of the building.”

Russell told WJAR-TV he checked with the club’s manager before the show and the band’s use of pyrotechnics was approved. He said he felt the heat of the flames while on stage.

“This place went up like a Fourth of July,” he said.

The club has passed a fire code compliance inspection Dec. 31 in order to get their liquor license renewed, Hall said. He said no sprinkler system was required because of the building’s size, but a license would have been required for the pyrotechnics.

The allowable capacity for the show was 300, but Hall said there were fewer people than that inside.

Rhode Island Gov. Don Carcieri, who was in Stuart, Fla., to attend a governors’ conference, said he planned to return to the state Friday morning.

“Our hearts go out to all of them. Our hearts and prayers to all of the families that have been impacted by this. … There’s no words to describe,” Carcieri said. “This is a terrible tragedy. It should not have occurred. Why it occurred is one of the questions that needs to be answered.”

Great White is a heavy metal band whose hits include “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” and “Rock Me.” The band emerged in the Los Angeles metal scene of the late 1980s, selling 6 million albums and earning a Grammy nomination in 1990.

They continued to tour and make albums in recent years, maintaining a strong allegiance of fans from their glory days of the 1980s.