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Thread: Families, survivors attend memorials on anniversary of deadly fire

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    Families, survivors attend memorials on anniversary of deadly fire

    Friday, February 20, 2004

    Families, survivors attend memorials on anniversary of deadly fire


    By BROOKE DONALD
    Associated Press Writer


    WEST WARWICK, R.I.- Brokenhearted families, friends and scarred survivors huddled in the cold Friday at the site of a nightclub that burned to the ground one year ago during a rock concert, listening as the names of the 100 victims were read aloud.

    The service at the site of The Station also included 100 seconds of silence after 11 p.m., about the time a band's pyrotechnics sent a shower of sparks into the air last Feb. 20, setting fire to flammable foam placed around the stage.

    More than 1,000 people attended the ceremony, which ended with the lighting of a 4-tall, plywood heart with white and blue lights for each victim, and pink lights for survivors.

    Many of the attendees wore glow sticks around their necks, and black baseball caps with the words "The Station, Feb. 20, 2003" etched in white letters.

    "During this 10 o'clock hour, people gathered here to do what they do, doing what people do, listening to music they enjoy," said Bruce Greer, a chaplain for the Warwick Fire Department. "A spray of sparks changed everything - for them, for us, for everybody."

    Nancy Noyes, whose face and hands still bore scars from the fire, said she came Friday seeking answers.

    "I'm trying to figure out how I got out (of the club) because I don't remember," said Noyes, of New London, Conn. Noyes, who was among more than 200 people injured in the fire, was hoping rescue workers there Friday would recall pulling her to safety.

    "This just takes your breath away, to see so many people hurting like this," said Nicole Heon, 32, of Coventry. Heon, who planned to go to the concert last year but changed her mind at the last minute, said she knew four people who died.

    She was touched by the music at the ceremony, which was rock music containing themes of reflection, hope and salvation. "It's very sad ... the words affect you," she said.

    Visitors streamed onto the site throughout the day, kneeling and crying in front of more than 100 crosses, which together formed a memorial around what once was the nightclub's perimeter. They brought flowers, balloons, pictures and other mementoes.

    Carmen Hernandez, of Orlando, Fla., placed a red candle near the crosses of her aunt and uncle, Ben and Linda Suffoletto, both 43. She said the candle is Polish tradition to ward off evil spirits.

    She said the experience of visiting the place where they died was like walking "in the clouds."

    Several miles away in Cranston, the Most Rev. Robert Mulvee, bishop of the Providence diocese, presided over a Roman Catholic Mass at St. Ann Church.

    Anne Gruttadauria, 59, of Johnston, mourned her 33-year-old daughter, Pam, who died in May and was the fire's last victim.

    "It's like the light went out in my house," she said.

    Gov. Don Carcieri also visited the site Friday. He walked among the crosses, consoling families and reading messages left for the victims.

    Mental health counselors were at the ceremony. Lisa Yanku, program manager of the Outreach for Recovery Program, said anniversaries bring an "upsurge of grief and sadness and remembrance."

    "Plus, we're concerned about people drinking," she said. "It's just a time when people want to escape those painful feelings."

    Rhode Island Hospital, which treated 63 patients on the night of the fire, held a late-night candlelight vigil to reflect on the tragedy. Nearly 100 people, many hospital workers in scrubs, attended the brief vigil.

    The fire started moments after 1980s rock band Great White began its first song, "Desert Moon." In December, a grand jury indicted the club's owners, brothers Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, and Great White's former tour manager, Dan Biechele, on 200 counts each of involuntary manslaughter. All three have pleaded innocent.

    Attorney General Patrick Lynch told The Associated Press that it was unlikely he'd strike a deal with the three men charged.

    "There are only two things that can happen: a plea to the charges or a finding of guilt or innocence before a judge or jury," Lynch said.

    The band lost its guitarist, Ty Longley, in the fire. Great White's lead singer, Jack Russell, told the Providence-area rock station WKKB-FM that he'll mark the anniversary privately.

    The Derderians offered their condolences to those who lost loved ones.

    "We realize that the passage of time offers little in the way of healing," they said in a statement. "Yet our sincerest hope, our prayer - for you, and for all who were touched by this day one year ago - is that healing will truly come."

    ---

    Associated Press Writer Matt Pitta contributed to this report.

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    Visitors flock to site of nightclub fire on anniversary

    Friday, February 20, 2004

    Visitors flock to site of nightclub fire on anniversary


    By MICHAEL MELLO
    Associated Press Writer


    WEST WARWICK, R.I.- A steady stream of visitors on Friday left flowers, balloons, trinkets and other mementoes near the crosses that represent the 100 men and women who died as a result of a nightclub fire that bruised the state one year ago.

    Paul Bertolo, 45, needed to do more, to ease his own guilt for surviving the Feb. 20, 2003, blaze at The Station nightclub.

    The Brockton, Mass., man contributed a 4-tall, plywood heart with white and blue lights for each of the victims, and pink lights for survivors. More than 200 people were injured in the fire.

    "For the last five months I've been feeling guilty," the automobile restorer said. He still wonders whether his path to safety out a window of The Station that night was cleared by someone who didn't survive.

    Bertolo said it took about 40 hours to make the heart, which includes the name of each person who died.

    "It was something I needed to do to pay my respects," he said. "And it's helped me, to let out my feelings."

    Many visitors walked from cross to cross, reading messages left for the victims. Among them, a handful of grief counselors in reflective vests milled, offering help.

    One man in blue jeans and a leather jacket kneeled for minutes in front of a cross, shaking his head from side to side. As he kneeled, a woman approached him, put her hand on his shoulder and tried to console him. He continued to weep.

    Another woman placed a rose at each cross.

    Carmen Hernandez, of Orlando, Fla., left a red candle at the crosses of her aunt and uncle, Ben and Linda Suffoletto, both 43 years old. She said the red candle is Polish tradition to ward off evil spirits.

    Hernandez said it was her first visit to the site. It felt "like I'm walking in a neutral space, like in the clouds," she said. "I feel like I'm in the twilight zone."

    Hundreds gathered at the site later Friday night for a memorial service that included song, prayer and 100 seconds of silence.

    Kevin Mimande, 35, of Johnston, knew five people who perished in the fire.

    "It's almost eerie," he said, after walking through the muddied grounds, as others huddled quietly near crosses that form a circle around what was once the nightclub's perimeter.

    Mimande's brother, Alan, 33, had planned to go to the club on the night of the fire, but didn't when the vacation pay he was expecting didn't come in time.

    "I've been thinking about that a lot," he said. "I just feel lucky."

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    Family celebrates life of youngest nightclub-fire victim on stage

    Friday, February 20, 2004

    Family celebrates life of youngest nightclub-fire victim on stage


    By MICHAEL MELLO
    Associated Press Writer


    WOONSOCKET, R.I.- Family and friends of the youngest person to die in The Station nightclub fire marked the first anniversary of his death by performing a play he wrote - a story about teenage angels that give hope to others in despair.

    Eighteen-year-old Nicholas O'Neill wrote the play before he died. His family discovered the script after the West Warwick fire that killed O'Neill and 99 others.

    "It's absolutely wrenching to do this on the anniversary," said O'Neill's older brother, Chris, "but then what else would we be doing?"

    O'Neill wrote the play because he was moved by a 5-year-old girl he knew who had died, according to relatives. His family found the script stashed among his belongings, a forgotten expression of emotion and sensitivity he displayed through his writing, acting and music, they said.

    The Encore Repertory Company, to which O'Neill belonged, staged the play in the Stadium Theatre. About 600 people bought $10 or $12 tickets, with the proceeds going to a $2,500 college scholarship to study theater in O'Neill's name.

    The play is "an incredible, complex story, in that it is at once amazingly inspired and tragic," said Adele Marchbank, the Stadium Theatre's executive director.

    "We knew he wrote the play, but he never made a big deal out of it," said O'Neill's father, David Kane. "It's kind of funny how it ties in to (the news of) today. It includes a young man struggling with being gay.

    "He had many friends who were gay, it used to bother him to see how they were treated," the 56-year-old Kane, of Pawtucket, said. "Nicky hated to see anyone sad."

    Three of O'Neill's brothers participated in the production. Kane played "a homophobic preacher."

    While hundreds gathered Friday night at a memorial service at the site of the fire, about 50 people gathered in Woonsocket to celebrate O'Neill's life. Many said the play was a reflection of the teenager they knew so well, and a message of hope that everything would be OK.

    "It was beautiful. Everyone needed it," said 16-year-old Emily Fascia, of Johnston, a friend of O'Neill's.

    Fascia's mother, 44-year-old Elizabeth, said: "It was a wonderful performance. There were so many wonderful messages. It's just a wonderful feeling to see everyone pulling together to put it on."

    At the end of the play, the names of the 100 people who died as a result of the fire were read.

    The night began with excerpts of Encore productions that O'Neill was involved in, including "Grease," "The Lion King," and "Once Upon A Time." On a large screen behind the actors were pictures of O'Neill in various performances, as well as photos of him at various times in his life.

    O'Neill played in a rock band called Shryne. One of his bandmates, John Brennan, 20, said O'Neill "always knew he'd premiere (at) the Stadium Theatre, but he didn't know it would be like this."

    Kane said his son wanted to become a rock star.

    "He told us he wanted to take guitar lessons at about 15-16 years old," Kane recalled. "He took four lessons and he could play like some people can play any song on a piano.

    "But the most important part of him was his heart, he was a loving, gentle kid," Kane said.

    It's been hard for Kane to go through rehearsals without getting emotional, or thinking of conversations he had with his son.

    "You try to maintain your character, but your mind goes to where (the play) came from," he said.

    When Kane heard his son's name during a recent rehearsal, "I was gone; I started to cry. You think you've armored yourself ... "

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