If you remember the Great White concert fire of February 20, 2003, chances are any time you’ve gone to a club or a concert since then, you’ve made sure to notice where the closest emergency exit is. And if you don’t recall the fire, reading accounts of the horror may well get you to start.
On February 20, 2003, what should have been a few fun hours of headbanging, high-hair, tight spandex, and hard-rocking ’80s glam metal nostalgia turned, instead, into a horrific inferno that claimed the lives of 100 concertgoers and seriously injured more than 200 others.
It was the night vintage pop-metal outfit Great White played the Station rock club in West Warwick, Rhode Island, and the entire building burned with hundreds of concertgoers inside.
The disaster commenced just a few bars into Great White’s opening number, “Desert Moon.”
Tour manager Daniel Biechele detonated a pair of spark-spraying devices called gerbs. The sparks ignited extremely flammable and noxious acoustic foam behind the drum kit, sending cascades of smoke down onto the audience. A death storm of hellish proportions tore through the surroundings with unimaginable speed.
Great White vocalist Jack Russell, upon seeing the flames, said into the microphone, “Wow! That’s not good!” Most of the band rushed out a side exit as, within one minute, the stage collapsed in complete immolation.
In a bit of horrible irony, Brian Butler, a local news cameraman who was on site to do a story about nightclub safety, captured the moment the club caught fire and the terror that followed.
Fans stampeded to get outside. Although four exits were available, most rushed for the front door. Some survivors testified that a bouncer prevented them from using the stage exit.
Among those killed were Great White lead guitarist Ty Longley and WHJY radio personality Mike “The Doctor” Gonsalves, who had hosted the show.
Emotions, understandably, ran high at the massively attended February 24, 2003, memorial for the victims, where Rhode Island Governor Donald Carcieri officially outlawed pyrotechnics in small nightclubs. Those feelings continue to run deep.
Jeffrey Derderian and Michael Derderian, owners of the station, were fined $1.03 million and served criminal sentences.
Daniel Biechele, who technically started the blaze, pleaded guilty to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter on February 7, 2006. He told the court:
“I know how this tragedy has devastated me, but I can only begin to understand what the people who lost loved ones have endured. I don’t know that I’ll ever forgive myself for what happened that night, so I can’t expect anybody else to.
I can only pray that they understand that I would do anything to undo what happened that night and give them back their loved ones.
I’m so sorry for what I have done, and I don’t want to cause anyone any more pain.”
In addition, Biechele sent hand-written apology letters to the families of all 100 victims and kept in touch with many of them after being sentenced to 15 years in prison.
As a result, when Biechele came up for parole in 2007, approximately 20 family members of those who died expressed support to the board for his release. Biechele got out in 2008.
Similar sympathy isn’t quite so evident, however, for Great White frontman Jack Russell. Although the band embarked on a charity tour to benefit victims and survivors in 2003, many have gone on record as wanting Russell to publicly take more responsibility for what happened.
On the tragedy’s 10th anniversary, Russell said,
“My heart aches for all the families and friends of the victims whose lives will forever be changed by this terrible tragedy. I too lost many friends that night, but I can’t begin to equate that to the loss of a family member. For what it’s worth, you have been in my prayers and always will be.”
Still, Gino Russo, who sustained terrible burns that night, seemed to speak for many when she told The Boston Globe, “Everyone would look at this differently if Jack Russell would stand up and say, ‘I’m sorry.’”
The hard feelings appear to run so deep, in fact, that even after Russell performed a 2013 benefit concert for survivors, The Station Fire Memorial Foundation turned down the money, officially stating, “We feel the upset caused by his involvement would outweigh the amount of funds received.” The total refused was $180.
For many years, Russell vowed he would never play “Desert Moon” again. He relented during the benefit concert though, later saying, “It wasn’t the song’s fault.”
In 2015, Russell announced he was trying to find personal “peace” by making a documentary about the fire, hoping that he could finally apologize to everyone who suffered from it. He drew criticism for that, too.
So far, the film remains unfinished — along with so much else, it seems, connected to this tragedy.
Main photo: A firefighter holds his hand to his forehead as he stands amid the rubble at the scene of the deadly Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, R.I. in this Feb. 21, 2003, file photo. (AP Photo/ Elise Amendola, File)