Survivors of the Station nightclub fire reflect on tragedy’s 20th anniversary

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One hundred people were killed and many more injured when a pyrotechnic display caused a massive blaze in 2003.

It has been 20 years since The Station, a Rhode Island nightclub, went up in flames. One hundred people were killed. Stew Milne/Associated Press, File

Monday marked the 20th anniversary of the Station nightclub fire, one of the deadliest blazes to ever occur at a nightclub in the United States. Two decades after 100 people were killed in the West Warwick, R.I. fire, those affected by the incident are reflecting on that tragic night. 

Gina Russo, who was in The Station on Feb. 20, 2003, barely made it out. Her fiancé, Alfred “Freddy” Crisostomi, did not. Now, Russo leads the Station Fire Memorial Foundation, which oversees a memorial that stands where the nightclub once went up in flames, The Boston Globe reported. 

Russo said that the memorial serves a valuable purpose today for those who knew victims. 

“You walk on the property, and it doesn’t feel tragic anymore. People say they just feel peaceful,” Russo told the Globe. “For people to know you can go there now and look at this beautiful park and talk to your person… that’s what I love about it.”

Bruce Cain also lost someone who he was prepared to spend the rest of his life with. His fiancée, Tina Ayer, died at 33 in the fire, CBS Boston reported. 

“I miss Tina a lot. It seems like yesterday… We were going to get married in June and she passed away in February,” Cain told CBS. “Don’t take life for granted and I miss her every day… She was my world and now she’s my angel.”

In a statement, Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee honored the victims, their families, and the first responders who saved many lives. 

“Today, we mourn the 100 lives lost in the Station nightclub fire and the hundreds more whose lives will never be the same. To the families of those who died on that devastating day: Rhode Island will never forget your loved ones and we will always stand by you,” McKee said in the statement. “As we hold those impacted by this tragedy close in our hearts, we also remember the remarkable and courageous actions of first responders, public safety officials, medical professionals, and Rhode Islanders who sprang into action to save lives on that day and who worked to comfort their communities in the days and weeks following.”

The fire began as rock band Great White played to the crowd. Pyrotechnics ignited foam insulation that lined the walls and ceiling around the stage, the National Institute of Standards and Technology concluded. The fire quickly spread over the dance floor, along the ceiling. Those at the nightclub had to act soon, as smoke was visible in the exit doorways in just over one minute. Flames were seen breaking through a part of the roof in less than five minutes. 

The club was not equipped with sprinklers, according to the NIST, and crowding at the building’s main entrance made it difficult for people to escape. 

As the crowd bottlenecked at the club’s entrance, thick black smoke poured out of the building and over their heads. Firefighters responded within five minutes, and the building was fully engulfed within six minutes, according to a timeline assembled by WPRI. 

“It’s surreal. It seems senseless that something like this could happen. So many ways this could have been avoided,” Matthew Hoffman, an East Greenwich, R.I. resident, told WPRI

Stephen Sweet, a Quincy firefighter who lost his cousin Shawn Sweet in the fire, came to play the bagpipes at a memorial ceremony Monday, WCVB reported. He still remembers that deadly night.

“I come down every year and play the [bagpipes],” he told WCVB. “The message is, ‘Don’t forget.’ Never forget these people or forget what happened.”

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