Rhode Islanders Observe Anniversary of Deadly Nightclub Fire

February 22, 2011

Survivors of one of the nation’s worst nightclub fires and the families of those killed marked the eighth anniversary of the tragedy on Sunday with a short speech and a prayer, followed by 100 seconds of silence and the release of 100 red balloons — one for each victim of the blaze.

But these somber gestures did little to lift the sense of frustration that hung over the gathering, brought on by a land dispute that has delayed a long-planned memorial at the site of the disaster.

On Feb. 20, 2003, a fire, started by an onstage pyrotechnics display during a set by the 1980s rock band Great White, ripped through The Station nightclub, killing 100 people and injuring more than 200. Years of litigation came to an end in summer 2010 as the last of the money won in lawsuits related to the fire was paid out.

Victims’ relatives and survivors of the fire say the site’s owner promised to donate the land for a memorial once the lawsuits were settled, a promise they now say the property owner has broken. Plans for the memorial include a 100-string harp that would be played by the wind, gardens and a memorial park.

Chris Fontaine, president of the Station Fire Memorial Foundation, said during the short service that the foundation plans to ask West Warwick’s town council use its power to transfer the land to the foundation “for the public good.” Fontaine’s 22-year-old son, Mark, died in the fire.

Representatives of Triton Realty Inc., which owned the property at the time of the fire and has since placed it under the control of a related limited liability corporation, have said that no such promise was made.

Fontaine said she will deliver an update on the foundation’s efforts at a public meeting in West Warwick on April 18.

For now, crosses and other memorials poke through the snow that, on Sunday, still covered the site where The Station once stood. About 200 people gathered to pay their respects on the cracked asphalt that once served as the club’s parking lot.

After the service, Laura Krause, who had traveled to Rhode Island from Yarmouth, Maine, with her husband and daughter, knelt at the cross of her niece Leigh Ann Moreau, which was adorned with stuffed animals, glow sticks and freshly placed flowers. Moreau was 21 when she perished in the fire.

Krause said she was struck by the fact that the number of people and the length of the ceremony had shrunk since last year.

“I was a little disappointed that it was only 20 minutes,” she said. “It would have been nice if it was a little bit longer.”

Fire survivor Paul Bertolo, 52, said he think it’s only a matter of time before a memorial is built. But he said he fears the site’s owners might feel less pressure to hand over the land given the drop in attendance at recent anniversaries.

Bertolo, who is from Brockton, Mass., said he was pinned against a wall when a push from another concertgoer, Thomas Frank Marion, Jr., freed him from the crush, allowing him to escape through a window. Marion, who was 27, did not survive.

For the first anniversary, Bertolo built a tribute to the victims of the fire, a large heart-shaped board with 100 blue and white light bulbs forming a cross and the number “100.” Under each light is the name of one of the fire’s victims. It has become a mainstay of the annual service, and Bertolo says he hopes it will be part of the larger memorial Fontaine and others plan to build.

For the time being, he will have to wait.

As the 100 balloons –in two clusters of 50 — floated away at the end of the ceremony, one bunch became entangled in the gnarled limbs of an overhanging tree. After a few tense seconds, the wind pushed the balloons free to relieved applause, including that of Dave Kane, whose 18-year-old son, Nicholas O’Neill, was the youngest victim of the fire.

Kane, director of the Station Fire Memorial Foundation, said he hoped the memorial would be not only a monument to those who lost their lives, but also a reminder of the negligence of public safety officials he says should have shut down the club because it was a serious fire hazard.

“When elected officials don’t do their job, people die,” Kane said.

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