Bearing Witness - Station Nightclub Fire 2003 - 2013
By Fred Durso, Jr.
The following article is reprinted with permission from NFPA Journal® (Vol. 107, #1) copyright© 2013, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA. http://www.nfpajournal.org. All rights reserved.
Photography courtesy of Jon Chomitz.
On an overcast afternoon in November, Robert Feeney pulls his Toyota Camry into an empty parking lot off Cowesett Avenue, a busy commercial strip in West Warwick, Rhode Island. He gets out of the car and immediately tucks his scarred hands into his jeans to protect them from the autumn chill. Feeney’s oversized black fleece and half-smile cannot mask his uneasiness as he somberly walks from the parking lot to an adjacent plot of grass that was once the location of The Station nightclub.
On February 20, 2003, the club was packed with people eager to see the band Great White. Just moments into the show, though, illegal use of pyrotechnics inside the club started a fire that killed 100 people, making it the fourth-deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history. Feeney and more than 200 other people were injured in the blaze.
He stops in front of white wooden crosses bearing the names of his fiancée, Donna Mitchell, and two friends, Mary Baker and Pam Gruttadauria, who died inthe fire. It’s been nearly four years since Feeney, 41, last visited the site; he was consumed by survivor’s guilt for years, he says, and he’s trying to move on. He barely escaped the fire alive, suffering second- and third-degree burns on his head, hands, and shoulder, but his pale face, light blue eyes, and damp brown hair offer no indication of injuries. Look at his internal organs, though, he says, and you’ll see scars: his lungs, right cornea, right eardrum, voice box, and esophagus were permanently damaged in the fire. Feeney’s hands have healed well enough so that he can detail cars at a friend’s business, located near his home in Plymouth, Massachusetts. What was more painful than his yearlong rehabilitation, he says, was losing Mitchell, who still occupies his thoughts a decade later.
Feeney glances at the rest of the site, a heartbreaking and deteriorating memorial to the other victims. Dozens of small crosses bear weathered photos of smiling young men and women; some are upright, while others lie haphazardly on the ground. Mementos are scattered about—blue and yellow hardhats, Mardi Gras beads, stuffed animals bruised by the harsh New England climate—along with a smattering of trash. Peaceful reflection at the site is difficult, since the nearby traffic is incessant and loud. Feeney says he’s heard the sound of sirens every time he’s visited since the fire, and today is no exception.
As a burn survivor, Feeney says he has learned to channel his loss and pain into a force for change. He has joined nearly 70 other victims, including a handful of Station survivors, who have participated in advocacy training developed by the Phoenix Society, a nonprofit that offers peer support and education to anyone affected by a burn injury. (Amy Acton, the organization’s executive director, is an NFPA board member.) The advocacy centers on promoting fire sprinklers in residences and places of assembly. Training materials used by Feeney and others for media outreach and testimonies at legislative hearings include NFPA statistics and educational messaging highlighting the effectiveness of home fire sprinklers in one- and two-family dwellings.
Feeney’s efforts recently resulted in a key sprinkler victory. Last year, the city council in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was considering a new ordinance that would require sprinklering of all city nightclubs. Feeney attended a hearing and gave testimony on his experience the night of the fire at The Station, and how sprinklers could have saved lives. Lasting only minutes, Feeney’s moving speech helped convince the council to vote in favor of adopting NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®. The ordinance requires that all new “late-night entertainment venues” and existing facilities that house more than 100 people have sprinklers installed by the end of 2013.
Feeney talked with NFPA Journal at the former site of The Station about the long and painful road to recovery, and how it has made him an effective fire sprinkler advocate.
What is it like to be back here?
It’s strange. It feels like the first time coming back. The memories are just so vivid. I’m looking around and I can picture the cars, everything that was here that night.
Who were you with the night of the fire?
I came here with my fiancée, Donna, and her friends—Mary Baker, Pam Gruttadauria, and Kathy Sullivan [Pelchat].
How did you meet Donna?
At another club in 2002. We were all seeing the same band. I had seen Donna a few times at other places, but I was just way too shy to say hello. This one night, I went up to the bar and noticed she was standing next to me. She smoked at the time. She went to grab an ashtray, and I moved a little bit. She was all upset because she thought she had burnt me with the cigarette. That was the icebreaker. We then went to Kathy’s house and stayed up talking until 4:30 in the morning. Right off the bat, I just knew that this was the person I’d been looking for. We were engaged a month before the Station fire. We booked everything for the wedding as soon as we could, finishing up a couple nights before the fire.
Did you and Donna arrive together that night?
Yes, we arrived around 8:30 p.m. We parked at a nearby car dealership. Donna, Pam, and I went to dinner. Kathy and Mary went inside The Station. It was packed, that’s why we parked in the car dealership’s lot. We entered the club around 9:45 p.m. It was shoulder-to-shoulder, wall-to-wall people.
Where were you when the show started?
We were to the right of the stage, about 12 feet (4 meters) back. Mary and Kathy weren’t with us, but we knew they were near us. The band came out, and immediately … the pyrotechnics shot off. I looked at Donna and we both laughed. It was so 80s. From where we were standing, we could see the wall on both sides of thedrummer’s alcove on fire. We looked around, waiting to see if someone was going to put out the fire or if sprinklers would put it out. I assumed there were sprinklers. The fire grew to the ceiling.
How far from an exit were you?
We were very close to the exit nearest the stage. I was 12 feet (4 meters) from the corner of the stage, and the hallway right next to it had an exit. The main entrance was another 20 feet (6 meters) behind me. As we tried to exit nearest the stage, the bouncer pushed us back into the crowd and said, “You have to go out the front [exit].” We just figured we wouldn’t cause a problem. I kept thinking that they would put the fire out, so we got in line like everyone else and headed for the front door. We kept looking over our shoulder, wondering if we should run for [the stage exit]. We had maybe 30 seconds to even think about it. The ceiling and the walls where they had the polyurethane foam [a combustible material that contributed to the fire’s rapid spread] were on fire. There were no more choices. There was no running for the exit. We hit the floor.
What were others doing?
I was on top of Donna and people were on top of me, and we were just trying to get everyone off of us and get back on our feet. I couldn’t see the exit behind us [near the stage] because it was just a wall of flames. I told Donna that we would make a run for the front exit in three seconds. We may have walked two steps when this gray smoke hit us. It literally felt like you got hit with a bat. There was just this intense heat that hit you so hard that you went down, and stayed down. People were collapsing from the smoke, the flames. There were people on fire running toward the crowd [at the main exit].
Were you able to move?
A metal object from the building fell on me and cut me across the top of my head. I couldn’t feel anything below my shoulders. I was just lying there and could see bodies, and flames dropping from the ceiling. I could see Donna’s sneakers and tried to pull her towards me, but she was unconscious. She wasn’t responding at all. I didn’t think I had anything left, so I just laid there.
For how long?
I’d say about a minute. There was dead silence—no more alarms or lights exploding. Then I heard the crackling of wood burning. I started crawling again and felt along a wall, where I found a hole where someone had kicked out a piece of plywood. I dove through the hole and found myself in the middle of the vestibule. To my right were flames and to my left were flashing lights. I crawled out, dove into the parking lot, and leaned against a tour bus. Firefighters came over and tackled me—my shirt and hair were smoldering.
Where did they take you?
They started to drag me across the street to the triage site. I was more concerned about Donna. In my head, she had followed me, and I figured she must be near the hole in the wall. I started walking back to the building, but the firefighters wouldn’t let me. As they were dragging me to triage, I could see the building. As soon as we hit the edge of the parking lot, I saw the roof collapse—I’d only been out of the building for a minute and a half. I got into an ambulance, where they cut off my clothes and gave me an oxygen mask. That’s the last thing I remember until I woke up 12 days later.
When did you learn that Donna had died?
I woke up twice [during my time in the hospital]. The last time was the day of my fiancée’s funeral. I started panicking because she wasn’t in the room with me. I kept looking for a phone. Nobody would answer my questions. It was probably two or three hours later that my parents walked into the room. There were nurses, doctors, social workers, probably about 12 people in there. As soon as they walked in, they didn’t have to say a word. I knew.
When did you start championing for sprinklers?
May or June after the fire. I was in real rough shape. At the time, Massachusetts had put together a coalition to address the fire, and I wound up speaking at one of the meetings at the request of my cousin, a deputy fire chief. The Station investigation was ongoing, so there really wasn’t much I could say, but I pressed the issue of sprinklers. That was my first time. Soon after, I got connected with the Phoenix Society, and I haven’t stopped since.
Do you think your advocacy work was able to help further your recovery?
Despite staying active with Phoenix, post-traumatic stress disorder continued to affect me for a number of years. I remember one night driving out to the tip of Cape Cod and back to Plymouth. I don’t even know why. I couldn’t stand seeing people, but I also didn’t want to be alone. I started going to counseling [three years ago] and talking about what I went through in a different way and focused on me, but not in a selfish way. I was a survivor but I was still a victim. I was still holding onto guilt seven years after the tragedy. I never forgave myself for surviving. Seeking counseling allowed me to do other things—it allowed me to advocate.
How did you get involved with the Chattanooga hearing?
I met Vickie Pritchett [director of public fire protection for the National Fire Sprinkler Association] at one of the Phoenix Society’s World Burn Conferences. She was interested in my story and the fact that I’d taken advocacy classes offered by the Phoenix Society. I wasn’t a public speaker. When Vickie asked me to head down to Chattanooga and testify, I wrote out a speech. I started by saying, “You’re only giving me three minutes, but the irony is that during the [Station] fire, in that amount of time 97 people died.” I was glad they gave me that amount of time—I wanted them to think about how fast people died in a fire without sprinklers.
There’s a YouTube video of your speech. Were you as confident as you seemed?
I was petrified. However, I was motivated after listening to the attorney who represented the nightclubs. I heard him say, “This isn’t Rhode Island, it’s Tennessee—[a fire like the one at The Station] is not going to happen down here.” I said to myself, “Just let me go up there and shut this lawyer up.”
What was your reaction when you heard the council’s vote?
We found out that day. The ordinance passed by one vote. The councilman who was the deciding vote introduced himself to me afterwards and said, “I’m that final vote, and I think I would have voted the other way if you didn’t come down here and talk.” That was huge—it made all the pain and fear of testifying worth it. The mayor also thanked me for coming down and said, “I think you just saved my city.” I was so emotional.
What else are you doing as an advocate?
I assist the Phoenix Society with any events they ask me to attend. I went to Capitol Hill with Amy Acton and Vickie last year to help lobby legislators for the Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act [which would offer tax incentives for sprinkler upgrades]. We spoke with Rhode Island Congressman Jim Langevin, who has sponsored the bill. A survivor’s voice means a lot more than a politician’s voice. I just keep telling other survivors how they can help by using their own voice.
Are you also pushing for sprinklers in new one- and twofamily dwellings?
I know that if I’m ever in a position to buy or build a house, it’ll be built with sprinklers. Sprinklers are expected to be in commercial buildings—why not have them in your house, when you spend the majority of your time there? There are still so many residential deaths. It’s one little thing that costs less than carpeting your house and will save the lives of your family.
The Station site made headlines recently when the original landowner transferred ownership to the Station Fire Memorial Foundation, which is raising funds for a formal memorial. Do you support this?
For the families that feel they haven’t taken steps to move on, it’s really important for them to have something peaceful and respectful to remember, to not come here and see crosses made of wood that used to be part of the building and all of these different memorials. It looks like a gravesite, a very old gravesite. It’s depressing. Hopefully a new memorial will help them move forward.
The Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors Providing Support Throughout a Decade of Healing
The Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors has been honored to be able to respond and provide support to the Rhode Island community over the last decade. Within a week of the Station nightclub fire, Phoenix Society board members and our executive director met with community leaders to discuss the long-term nature of burn recovery and offer our assistance. After this meeting, Frank McGonagle, then a member of the Society’s board, was asked to serve as a volunteer advisor to the Rhode Island Community Foundations Fund, which was charged with providing support to affected individuals. This was the start of a collaborative effort to best meet the needs of those injured, as well as their families, with a secondary goal of building support for citizens affected by burns in the future.
Following are descriptions of just some of the programs and services that the Phoenix Society offered through the RI Foundation Station Fund and the Station Family Fund:
- Resources and support materials were provided to the burn center and affected families within a week of the fire.
- A day-long workshop, Helping Burn Survivors and Their Families to Heal the Effects of Loss and Traumatic Insult After Burn Injury, was conducted for mental health care agencies.
- Eighteen months after the fire, and for the next 7 years, World Burn Congress scholarships were provided by the two funds allowing those affected by the fire to connect to the larger burn survivor support community.
- A day long workshop Life Strategies to Be Comfortable, Confident, and Competent in Social, Work or School Situation, was conducted for burn center staff and survivors.
- The Phoenix Society’s Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery program was implemented at Rhode Island Hospital Burn Center and was available at the other burn centers where survivors were treated.
- A needs assessment and post-catastrophe adjustment survey of burn survivors injured in the fire was conducted with the University of Kentucky.
- In collaboration with Susan Bradley, CFP, the workshop Planning for the Future —Strategies for Survivors: Mastering the Personal and Financial Impact Associated with the Fire was offered to individuals affected by the fire.
- Advocacy training was provided to several survivors from the Station fire to prepare them to advocate for code adoptions that will prevent similar tragedies.
The 25th Phoenix Society’s World Burn Congress was held in Rhode Island with tremendous support from the community. We hope to honor those we have worked with for the last decade and celebrate the healing that has occurred, and will continue to occur, because of the compassionate response by so many that laid the ground work for healing to occur.