Monday, February 22, 2010

'From the Ashes' : Surviving the Station fire

Saturday night marked the 7th anniversary of the Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island, and in yesterday's Herald I featured 'From the Ashes,' a new book by survivor Gina Russo. In research I went to the site for the first time, and the whole ordeal still stays with me pretty heavily. I was in RI that night, have covered many benefits for victims and feel, as someone who sees several shows a week, that this tragedy could have happened anywhere. But the survivors' tales are mesmerizing.

Charred memories
Emotions smolder in book by survivor of ’03 Station fire
By Michael Marotta
Sunday, February 21, 2010 - Updated 1d 20h ago

On the night of Feb. 20, 2003, Gina Russo made a last-minute decision to see Great White at The Station, a nightclub in the aging mill town of West Warwick, Rhode Island.

At 11:07 p.m., shortly after the ’80s hard-rock band hit the stage, her life would change forever.

Inside the 4,500-square-foot, ingle-story, wood-frame club on sleepy Cowesett Avenue, a fire caused by pyrotechnics broke out. It would take 100 lives and severely injure 200 people in what was the fourth deadliest nightclub fire in United States history.

Russo, 35 at the time and a mother of two small children, survived. Her fiance, 38-year-old Fred Crisostomi, did not.

With the arrival of the seventh anniversary of the Station Nightclub fire, Russo has detailed surviving the inferno and the years of rehabilitation that followed in a new book, “From the Ashes.” The self-published book ($14.94 at was co-written with Rhode Island-based writer Paul Lonardo. A portion of the proceeds are earmarked for burn care facilities.

“People said you have to write a book about this, but for the first few years life wasn’t so great,” Russo said last week at her home in Cranston. “It took me a while to deal with my medical condition.”

Russo suffered burns on 50 percent of her body: second-degree burns on her hands and forearms and third-degree burns on her shoulder, face and scalp. Her scalp wounds burned down to her skull, and the shell of her left ear melted away.

She spent 11 weeks in a medically induced coma before waking up.

“The first words I heard were ‘Do you remember the fire?’ and I said no,” Russo said. “Then I was asked ‘Do you remember the fire in the Station nightclub?’ I felt the heat again, and the whole night came back to me in an instant.”

The 258-capacity club had been overfilled with 462 people, who were directed to what they were told was the one way out: the three-foot wide front door.

“That many people,” Lonardo said, “and they had to get out of that room in two minutes.”

The fire started when Great White tour manager Dan Biechele lighted three fountains of sparks to announce the band’s arrival on stage. The sparks became flames and ignited the ceiling, which was made out of the same low-density polyurethane foam that lined the entire club. Installed as a sound barrier, the inexpensive eggshell-like buffer was not flame retardant and also emitted a toxic cyanide gas when lit.

All the members of Great White - except guitarist Ty Longley, who perished in the inferno - escaped through a side door unavailable to fans.

Fire alarms blared, but the fire spread quickly in a club without a sprinkler system. Light bulbs exploded. The room went dark. All hell broke loose.

“Ninety minutes after ignition, the ambulances stopped coming,” Russo writes in “From the Ashes.” “The smell of burnt flesh hung in the air and red stains in the snow were a grim testament to the massive loss of life that had occurred.”

Russo was taken to Miriam Hospital in Providence, then to Boston’s Shriners Hospital. It was only the second time in its 80-year-history that Shriners opened its doors to adult burn victims; Sept. 11, 2001 was the first.

On April 30, Russo was transfered to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, and on June 13 - 113 days after the fire - returned home to begin nine months of intense physical therapy. Though she learned about her fiance’s death a week after waking up from her coma, it took much longer for the reality of her situation to settle in.

“It was on the one-year anniversary that I realized Fred had died,” Russo said. “It took me that long.”

Crisostomi’s memorial, along with 99 others, still remains at the Station site, with crosses made from salvaged wood left over from the gutted building. Many of the victims, including Crisostomi, are buried at Cranston’s St. Ann’s Cemetery, but Russo is always drawn to the Station site.

“In a strange way, it’s more peaceful,” she said. “I’m with him there. I don’t feel that anywhere else.”

Though the healing process has begun, the legal fallout from the fire continues. The Station’s owners, Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, pleaded no contest in September 2006 to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter. Jeffrey served no jail time; Michael is now free after serving less than three years.

Last month a federal judge endorsed a $176 million settlement for the survivors and victims’ families to be paid by the club’s owners, the town of West Warwick and companies Anheuser-Busch, Clear Channel Broadcasting and dozens of others.

Russo now works as an outpatient service representative at Rhode Island Hospital and frequently works with burn victims. She’s still a hard-rock fan, but Russo says even before the fire she never liked Great White very much. She visibly brightened at the mention of Tesla and their ballad “Love Song,” which was dedicated to her by the band at a 2008 benefit concert at the Dunkin Donuts Center in Providence.

“That’s my song,” she said “Those guys are real.”

And with the approach of another anniversary, she turned reflective.

“As the day gets closer I get very quiet,” Russo said. “I’m still surprised at who I am today. The person before the fire could not handle this.”

No comments:

Post a Comment