Five years ago, one of countless workmanlike concerts – the kind that get lost among the numbers – became a night that horrified a nation.
Today, the events of The Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, R.I., have been largely forgotten amid so many other distractions, from a war and the destruction of New Orleans to the simple passage of time. And the survivors are beginning to wonder if anyone remembers at all.
"We were waitresses, house painters, contractors, strippers," Victoria Eagan, who escaped the fire with minor injuries, told the New York Times. "If it had been people at the opera that night, there would have been a big difference."
And she has a point. The audience went to a concert at a small, nondescript, wooden building, not a fancy arena in Cincinnati – the site of another unforgettable rock tragedy. This time, though, it wasn’t The Who playing, it was Great White. No chains were on the doors like there were when 11 people died at the 1979 concert, but there was apparently an exit that opened the wrong way.
There was cheap flammable material all over the walls, a capacity limit that changed on a whim, cheap beer, fast and loose policies – in other words, a not uncommon roadhouse. The nation had just learned of a nightclub stampede in Chicago, where 21 people died. It foreshadowed a tragedy only a few nights later, a fire that killed 100 – and was caught on video.
Pollstar has written countless articles on the ramifications of the evening, focusing on the criminal cases, the civil suits, the settlements, pyrotechnic laws, the professional missteps of a tour manager, a band and two club owners – even Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s attempt to force clubs to install sprinklers. We focused on negligence, laws and how it affected "our industry."
But the Times recently focused on the survivors. Although 100 died from the blaze of February 20, 2003, others were left in agony, some found wandering the nearby snowdrifts in shock. The death toll climbed but, of the survivors, 23 have severe injuries, and 65 children were left without one or both parents.
Linda Fisher has had a dozen surgeries on her arms, hands and face, according to the Times, and, because her scars keep her from sweating normally, has trouble differentiating hot from cold.
"There are survivors who have no ears, eyes, nose, hair," she told the paper. "Most people don’t understand that a burn injury is a life injury. … If they think about us at all, it’s probably, ‘They must be all better, so why aren’t they back to work?’"
Meanwhile, the Station Family Fund has run dry three times and now has $82,000, according to Todd King, a survivor who runs the fund. It’s just enough to help the neediest survivors for about six months, he told the paper.
Tentative settlements total about $71.5 million, including a tentative $30 million settlement agreement with a TV station and cameraman that victims claim impeded exit and a $22 million settlement with Clear Channel Broadcasting. A Clear Channel radio station, WHJY, was a sponsor of the concert.
But, "I don’t think anyone is going to be made a millionaire and drive a Mercedes," Eagan told the Times.
Donovan Williams, who is burned over 70 percent of his body, legally blind and needs help tying his shoes, hopes the settlements will help people move on. He told the paper his eyesight is like looking through sunglasses with Vaseline on them.
"The only thing I want is one of those huge TVs," he said.
One who hasn’t forgotten is Dee Snider, who is throwing a fund-raiser for the victims. Ticket sales were reportedly slow, at least before the Times gave it national attention. Snider has recruited several heavy-hitters, including Gretchen Wilson, Dierks Bentley, John Rich, Tesla, Kellie Pickler, Aaron Lewis of Staind, Tom Scholz and Winger.
"It’s something that could have happened anywhere to any music fan," Snider said. "There are these fire-trap clubs all over the world, all over the country, and it could have been in an urban club or in a country honky-tonk."
The event, scheduled for February 25th, will take place at the 14,500-capacity Dunkin Donuts Center in Providence, R.I.
A crowd gathered at the site of the Station tragedy a few days before the actual five-year anniversary and wept as the names of the dead were read. Organizers revealed what would be known as the Station Fire Memorial Park. The land itself is tied up in lawsuits stemming from the fire. The Station Fire Memorial Foundation is still working on a cost estimate for the project though it has so far raised $100,000 for the memorial.
Among its many features, which collectively change the site into a place of quietude, is a bridge crossing a trickling creek. The bridge also acts as a 100-string Aeolian harp, which is played by the wind.
"Five years ago, a great tragedy happened right here on this cold and barren slab of asphalt," said Thomas Viall, who designed the memorial with Stephen Greenleaf. "Where will we stand five years from now? That was a central question Stephen and I attempted to answer through our design."
Great White tour manager Dan Biechele is expected to be paroled in March. Michael Derderian, one of the two club owners, is up for parole in 2009. His brother, Jeffrey, the other co-owner, was spared jail time and was sentenced to community service.