UPDATED: GREAT WHITE Pyro Ignites Fire At Rhode Island Club, At Least 86 People Reported Dead

February 21, 2003

A fire ignited by a pyrotechnic display at a GREAT WHITE concert in West Warwick, Rhode Island late Thursday resulted in dozens of deaths. Fire officials said they found at least 86 bodies inside the remains of the club near the front door.

Officials said many of the victims perished after they frantically rushed the club's exits. 150 people were taken to hospitals across the region with injuries ranging from smoke inhalation to severe burns.

The fire broke out about 11 p.m. at The Station on Cowesett Avenue shortly after GREAT WHITE took the stage. Video from the scene showed heavy smoke coming from the building. The fire was brought under control about 12:45 a.m.

Witnesses estimated there were 300 to 400 people in the club. Witnesses said patrons ran for exits and broke windows to escape the flames.

Video shot by CNN affiliate WPRI showed GREAT WHITE performing as onstage fireworks went off onstage. As the crowd cheered, a fire ignited by the pyrotechnics engulfed the stage. Initially, fans casually made their way toward the exit. Then, panic broke out, according to videographer Brian Butler, who was taping the rock concert.

"It was that fast. As soon as the pyrotechnics stopped, the flame had started on the egg-crate [foam] backing behind the stage and it just went up the ceiling and people stood and watched it," Butler said.

"Some people were already trying to leave and others were just sitting there going 'Yeah that's great!' and I remember that statement because I was like, 'This is not great, this is time to leave.'"

Jack Russell, the lead singer of GREAT WHITE, told local TV he checked with the club's manager before the show and the band's use of pyrotechnics was approved. He said he felt the heat of the flames while on stage.

"It went up like a Christmas tree," Russell told The Providence Journal. "I was trying to put it out with a bottle of water. I turned around and the building was engulfed. My sound man is injured. I'm on my way to the hospital. I'm missing my guitar player [Ty Longley]."

At press time, Longley was still said to be missing. The rest of the band — including guitarist Mark Kendall (who was erroneously reported to be on the "missing" list in some of the initial news reports) all got out OK and made it to the tour bus, according to Paul Woolnough, band manager and president of Knight Records.

Longley, the missing guitarist and a Pennsylvania native, has been playing with the band for three years.

"We're still looking for him," Russell said. "I'm going to check the hospitals. That's my main concern right now is to find him. After 25 years in show business, nothing like this has ever happened."

"What do you say? Gee, I'm sorry? That just doesn't cut it," the lead singer said. "There're no words to express how I feel right now. I'm devastated."

Town Manager Wolfgang Bauer couldn't speculate on the specific cause, but said a flame from the pyrotechnics display hit styrofoam in the ceiling.

"We rarely use pyrotechnics," Russell told WCVB-TV. "We use them when we get permission from the club."

Gov. Don Carcieri, in a phone interview from Florida, questioned whether the club had the necessary permits allowing pyrotechnic displays. The governor said he would return to the state as soon as possible.

The fire is believed to be the worst in Rhode Island since 10 women were killed in a dormitory fire at Providence College in 1977.

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