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Playing with fire



Published: Sat, February 22, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



WEST WARWICK, R.I. (AP) -- Operators of several venues around the country, including a Rhode Island nightclub where at least 96 people died in a fire, said Friday that the band Great White did not tell them ahead of time they would use pyrotechnics in their show.

"At no time, did either owner have prior knowledge that pyrotechnics were going to be used by the band Great White," said a statement issued on behalf of the owners of The Station in West Warwick, R.I., where the fire occurred Thursday night.

"No permission was ever requested by the band or its agents to use pyrotechnics at The Station, and no permission was ever given."

Video footage of the concert captured the ceiling of the club igniting immediately above the pyrotechnic displays on the stage.

Nearly 200 people were injured in the blaze, 35 critically.

Valentine's Day show

Domenic Santana, owner of the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J., the storied club associated with Bruce Springsteen, said no notice was given when Great White used pyrotechnics for a Valentine's Day show before 260 patrons.

Pyrotechnics are not allowed at the Stone Pony because of its low ceiling.

"It could have been the St. Valentine's Day massacre," Santana said.

At least two other Great White shows this month -- on Feb. 7 in Florida and Feb. 13 in Allentown, Pa. -- apparently included the use of pyrotechnics without notice.

Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch said authorities were investigating.

It was the deadliest U.S. nightclub fire since 165 people were killed at the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Ky., in 1977. It also came less than a week after 21 people were killed in a stampede at a Chicago nightspot.

Over capacity

The capacity of The Station was 300, but the number of victims and survivors indicated more were inside. The death toll rose steadily Friday as firefighters picked through the smoking ruins of the single-story building.

"This building went up fast -- nobody had a chance," said Gov. Don Carcieri, who rushed back to the state from a trip to Florida.

Under the glare of floodlights, a dozen firefighters and other law enforcement officials used rakes to sift through the rubble Friday night as they searched for evidence and belongings of the victims.

A corner of the building was still standing, along with the marquee, still advertising Great White's appearance.

Authorities warned it could take time to identify the victims. At hospitals around the region, anguished relatives pleaded for help in finding loved ones they feared were lost in the club.

Late Friday, the governor said seven of the dead had been identified. No names were released.

Missing daughter

Patricia Belanger stood trembling outside Rhode Island Hospital, clutching a photo of her daughter, Dina DeMaio, who was working at the club as a waitress to earn some extra money for herself and her 7-year-old son.

Belanger said she had not been able to find her daughter and was unable to tell her grandson about his mother's possible death.

"He knows his mother didn't come back," she said.

The fire was apparently touched off by pyrotechnics moments after the '80s hard-rock band kicked off its show. A TV cameraman doing a story on nightclub safety recorded the unfolding disaster, beginning with the fireworks, followed seconds later by bright orange flames climbing curtains and soundproofing behind the stage.

In moments, the stage was enveloped in a bright yellow haze. Among those missing late Friday was guitarist Ty Longley, a former Brookfield resident.

His father, Pat, of Sharon, Pa., traveled to Rhode Island with the musician's sister. "We're sort of hoping he's in a hospital somewhere," he said.

Longley's mother, Mary Pat Frederickson of Valdosta, Ga.,said she had always feared for her son's safety, but not on stage: "Only on airplanes, buses."

Disaster unfolds

Lead singer Jack Russell said he started dousing the fire with a water bottle but couldn't put it out. Then all the lights went out.

"All of a sudden I felt a lot of heat," Russell said. "I see the foam's on fire. ... The next thing you know, the whole place is in flames."

At least 25 bodies were found near the club's front exit. Fire Chief Charles Hall said some victims were trampled.

"They tried to go out the same way they came in. That was the problem," Hall said. "They didn't use the other three fire exits."

No permit

Fire officials said the club had passed a fire inspection Dec. 31 but didn't have a city permit for pyrotechnics. The building, which is at least 60 years old, was not required to have a sprinkler system because of its small size.

Nearly 190 people were taken to hospitals in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, with burns, broken bones and complications from smoke inhalation. The ages of the victims ranged from the teens to the late 30s.

The governor praised rescue workers for their professionalism at the emotional scene.

"Every time they bring someone out, they stop, take off their helmets with the chaplain and they are praying over each individual person," Carcieri said.




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