- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 22, 2003

WEST WARWICK, R.I. Great White was rocking through its first song, "Desert Moon," and the fans were cheering as fireworks sprayed the stage with sparks. They kept cheering even as flames shot toward the ceiling. Within three minutes, many of them were dead.

At least 96 persons died Thursday night, burned or crushed in their frantic fight to escape the old wooden building. Nearly 200 more were injured.

Club officials said they had not given the band permission to use pyrotechnics, an assertion echoed by other venues where Great White has played in the past month. The band disputed the accusation, and Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch said authorities were investigating.

Many concertgoers were caught off-guard as they slowly realized the fire wasn't part of the show. Many were badly burned and others were trampled in the rush to escape, in large part through a single door.

"I never knew a place could burn so fast," said Robin Petrarca, 44, who was roughed up in the scramble to escape. She said the smoke was so thick she couldn't see an exit just 5 feet away.

It was the deadliest U.S. nightclub fire since 165 persons were killed at the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Ky., in 1977. It also came less than a week after 21 persons were killed in a stampede at a Chicago nightspot.

The capacity of the Station nightclub was 300, but the number of victims and survivors indicated that more were inside. The death toll rose steadily yesterday as firefighters picked through the smoking ruins of the single-story building.

"This building went up fast. Nobody had a chance," said Gov. Donald L. Carcieri, who rushed back to the state from business in Florida.

Anguished relatives pleaded for help in finding loved ones they feared were inside the club.

Patricia Belanger stood trembling outside Rhode Island Hospital, clutching a photo of her daughter, Dina DeMaio, who was working at the club as a waitress to earn some extra money for herself and her 7-year-old son.

Mrs. Belanger said she had not been able to find her daughter and was unable to tell her grandson that his mother might have died.

"He knows his mother didn't come back," she said.

The fire appeared to have been touched off by pyrotechnics moments after the '80s hard-rock band kicked off its show. A TV reporter doing a story on nightclub safety filmed the unfolding disaster, beginning with the fireworks, followed seconds later by bright orange flames climbing curtains and soundproofing behind the stage. In moments, the stage was enveloped in a bright-yellow haze.

Lead singer Jack Russell said he started dousing the fire with a water bottle but couldn't put it out. Then all the lights went out.

"All of a sudden, I felt a lot of heat," Mr. Russell said. "I see the foam's on fire. … The next thing you know, the whole place is in flames."

Mr. Russell said one of his band members, guitarist Ty Longley, was among the missing. Great White's hits include "Once Bitten, Twice Shy" and "Rock Me."

At least 25 bodies were found near the club's front exit. Fire Chief Charles Hall said some victims were trampled.

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

Fire officials said the club had passed a fire inspection Dec. 23 but didn't have a city permit for pyrotechnics.

The building, which is at least 60 years old, was not required to have a sprinkler system because of its small size.

The pyrotechnics were used without permission, said Kathleen Hagerty, an attorney representing club owners Michael and Jeffrey Derderian, who are brothers.

"No permission was ever requested by the band or its agents to use pyrotechnics at the Station, and no permission was ever given," she said.

Mr. Russell said the band's manager checked with the club before the show and that the use of pyrotechnics was approved.

Paul Woolnough, president of Great White's management company, also said tour manager Dan Biechele "always checks" with club officials before pyrotechnics are used. Mr. Biechele could not be located to comment.

The owner of a well-known New Jersey nightclub said Great White did not tell him they were using pyrotechnics for a Valentine's Day show.

"Our stage manager didn't even know it until it was done," said Domenic Santana, owner of the Stone Pony in Asbury Park. "My sound man freaked out, because of the heat and everything, and they jeopardized the health and the safety of our patrons."

Concert organizers also said Great White used pyrotechnics during a Feb. 7 show at the Pinellas Park Expo Center near Tampa, Fla., without discussing it with promoters or the venue.

The Rhode Island show was the 18th on a tour that began Jan. 23. Officials at other clubs said Great White asked before using pyrotechnics and complied when they were turned down. One of those venues was the Oxygen Nightclub in Evansville, Ind., where the band played Feb. 3.

The club has ceilings 20 feet high "but we still did not want to take the chance," club owner J.J. Parson said. "We said we'd prefer they not to, and they went along. Everything we asked them to do, they'd do."

Nearly 190 people were taken to hospitals in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and at least 35 were in critical condition with burns and complications from smoke inhalation.

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