So much has changed since the last anniversary of The Station nightclub fire — a 2003 blaze sparked by pyrotechnics for the ’80s rock band Great White that killed 100 people and injured more than twice that many in West Warwick, R.I.
Criminal prosecutions stemming from the fire had yet to be resolved. Relatives of those killed hadn’t been given the chance to convey their sorrow in open court. Reams of grand jury testimony detailing the frightening first moments of the disaster were still sealed.
The approaching four-year anniversary of the Feb. 20, 2003 fire caps an emotionally charged 12 months that brought closure in the criminal case but did little to soothe a stinging, sometimes crippling, grief shared by those who lost a loved one.
“It never ends,” said John Richmond, whose daughter, Kelly Vieira, 40, died in the fire. “It’s not something I can shut off like a faucet.”
Among those killed, eight lived or worked in Connecticut.
On Sunday afternoon, survivors and victims’ relatives marked the anniversary with an annual memorial service at the roadside fire site that included music, an invocation, a recitation of the victims’ names and 100 seconds of silence. Some wore T-shirts bearing their loved ones’ faces or held small photos of them.
“The anniversary itself is a very, very emotional time, and people who can even keep their emotions at bay a good part of the year pretty much let it out on the anniversary,” Chris Fontaine, whose 22-year-old-son, Mark, died in the fire, said in a recent interview.
The developments of the past year, including plea deals many found distressing, were on the minds of mourners.
“Many families may have lost some of sense of hope after the outcome of the criminal cases,” Jessica Garvey, whose sister, Dina DeMaio, was among the victims, told the crowd of roughly 250 people.
Former state attorney general Arlene Violet, who spoke at the service, told mourners she hoped, in time, “some modicum of justice will be yours.”
In May, former Great White tour manager Daniel Biechele, who pleaded guilty to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter, was sentenced to four years in prison after a court hearing in which victims’ relatives described their loneliness, depression and nightmares caused by the fire.
In September, club owners Jeffrey and Michael Derderian pleaded no contest to involuntary manslaughter charges for installing the flammable soundproofing foam blamed for spreading the flames; Michael Derderian was given four years in prison, while his brother received a suspended sentence, probation and community service.
Jody King, a longtime friend of the Derderians whose brother, Tracy, was a club bouncer who died in the fire, said in a recent interview that while the loss remains raw, he did not want to relive the gory details of that night through a trial.
“We’ve heard it, we’ve lived it, we’re sick of it,” King said.
But others remain troubled by the fact that no one stood trial and by punishments that they believe were too lenient. The recent release of thousands of pages of grand jury testimony and witness statements offered a public airing of evidence, shedding light on everything from how the fire started to how the club operated.
Yet the material raised other troubling questions for some family members, such as the town fire marshal’s explanations for failing to take note of the flammable foam. Prosecutors advised the grand jury that state law would not support bringing criminal charges against the marshal, the documents showed.
“Obviously that still upsets, and it does me in a great way because it seems like no matter how you try to get the truth, you just can’t get it,” Richmond said.
Richmond lives near the fire site and looks at the memorial as he drives past, making sure a cross and photographs of his daughter there are standing upright. Time has not dulled the memories of his frantic search for Vieira after the fire — or how her body was so badly burned that she had to be identified by a ring.
And time has not stopped Fontaine from dwelling on the days she spent in the hospital with her daughter Melanie, who was injured at the concert but ultimately survived — only to lose her son Mark.
Fontaine is a board member of The Station Fire Memorial Foundation, which organized Sunday’s event at the site. Others find it too painful to visit.
James Gahan, who lost his 21-year-old son, Jimmy, has visited the site just once and is not interested in going back.
“The one trip that I did make there basically put me in a real bad frame of mind,” Gahan said in an interview several days ago.
Instead, Gahan said, the anniversary inspires him to devote attention to the foundation established in his son’s memory. Active in promoting nightclub safety, Gahan said he wants the fire to receive more attention outside of the region.
“We’re hoping that the more it is in people’s minds that they realize that there are things that still have to be done, work that still has to be accomplished in making sure that it doesn’t happen again.”
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