It has been more than a decade since Great White recorded a recognizable hit, which is one reason the band was playing the Station, a cramped and sweaty nightclub in West Warwick, R.I., last Thursday night. The venue often is host to bands whose popularity peaked in the 1980s, and when Great White took the stage shortly after 11 p.m., the band decided to provide the audience with a reminder of its heavy-metal past. Sets of "gerbs"--sparking pyrotechnic fountains--shot up from the stage as the band kicked into its first song, Desert Moon. Within seconds, flames crawled up the foam-covered wall behind the band and spread to the 9-ft.-high ceiling. Thinking the blaze was part of the band's act, a few fans let out cheers.
Those cheers soon turned to screams. As heat and black smoke began to billow through the club, some people tried to make their way out, heading toward the Station's front exit door. Then the lights went out, prompting a mass rush toward what many believed was the only way out. Some patrons smashed windows with barstools. Several dozen made it out unscathed; the rest of the estimated 350 patrons were still desperately clambering for escape when the stage fire engulfed the entire one-story wooden building. Scores were burned alive or suffocated under the crush of people amassed near that main door.
Arthur Conway, 28, watched the opening seconds of the show from the back of the bar; after trying to make his way out, he found himself stuck under a pile of people struggling to move and screaming for help. "The people just pancaked in front of him," his sister Virginia Zoerb says. "The guy underneath pleaded for him to get out, but he just couldn't." Conway felt his shoes melt and his feet catch fire. At that instant, a patron who had just wriggled free grabbed Conway's arm and pulled him out. Conway turned back to the pile of people and saw them all burst into flames. Their hands reached out desperately for anyone to pull them free, but no one could. Their hands were all aflame. Conway was admitted to Rhode Island Hospital, suffering from burns and smoke inhalation.
Only with the light of dawn did the full, gruesome picture reveal itself. By Friday night, rescuers had recovered 96 corpses from the ruins of the Station. Some 200 people were injured, at least 25 critically. The calamity was the second deadliest nightclub fire in the U.S. in the past 50 years and the fourth deadliest nightclub fire in American history. It came just four days after 21 people were trampled to death during a panicked stampede at the E2 club in downtown Chicago (see box). As is usually the case, the tragedies were uniquely disastrous, each made more catastrophic by individual instances of horrendous decision making. But with the country already on high alert about the possibility of terrorist attacks against soft civilian targets, the proximity of last week's events added to the sense of insecurity. They also raised new questions about the extent to which safety regulations at the country's nightclubs are going unenforced. Robert Plotkin, president of the National Bar & Restaurant Association, says, "The fact that these types of incidents are so rare may lull operators into this sense that safety regulations are not terribly important."