“I just wish they would do something with the land and get it over with,” said Patricia Belanger yesterday morning at the site of the Station Nightclub fire at 211 Cowesett Road in West Warwick. “It’s hard driving by here. I don’t care what they turn it into; I just want them to erase the memory. I want to forget this building was ever here.”
Belanger’s daughter, Dina DeMaio, was a waitress at the nightclub and was one of the 100 people who perished in the fire nine years ago on Feb. 20, 2003. It was her 30th birthday and Great White, a rock band that emerged during the 1980s, was set to perform.
But, the show opened with pyrotechnics causing the fatal fire. The flames were extensive and a week passed before DeMaio’s death was confirmed.
“It was a long week because that’s how long it took before she was identified,” said DeMaio’s sister, Jessica Garvey, who is also the president of the Station Fire Memorial Foundation, established in July 2003. “I remember her smile. She was always smiling.”
DeMaio left behind a son, Justin, who is now 16 and her loved ones say the current state of the land, which is two-thirds of an acre, isn’t doing the victims any justice. Wooden crosses, along with flowers, balloons and plush toys, mark graves.
“It needs to be better than this,” said Garvey. “They deserve better.”
DeMaio’s best friend, Barbara Mendez, agreed and said, “This is the only place we get to visit.”
The Foundation, said Garvey, has raised more than $100,000 since its inception and intends to use the money to create a more appropriate place of rest for their friends and family members who lost their lives.
However, planning is at a “stand-still,” as Garvey said property owner Raymond Villanova of Lincoln has failed to communicate with her, as well as other members of the Foundation.
“It’s a complicated matter. We have no ill feelings for the property owner; we just want to know what it is that we can do to get the land,” she said. “We don’t know why he’s not talking to us.”
Garvey said Villanova agreed to donate the land after lawsuits and settlements were finalized. For whatever reason, that hasn’t happened.
In a phone interview yesterday afternoon, former board member Dave Kane, whose son died in the fire, said he had a conversation with Villanova’s then-lawyer, Daniel McKinnon, more than two years ago. Kane said McKinnon assured him the land would be donated to the “Station Fire people.”
“As the settlements came in, I contacted his office and spoke to his daughter and she said she just needed to check on a few things and get back to him,” Kane said.
However, said Kane, she failed to contact him.
“At that point, I called her again and she said there were other litigations that were stopping them from making the deal,” he said. “In the meantime, we had one of our attorneys check it out and there were no other litigations involved at all. I called her back and she never returned any calls.”
From there, Kane said he attempted to schedule a meeting with Villanova. This, too, was not a success.
“He declined,” said Kane. “All I want him to do is turn the land over to the Foundation. He can write it off on his taxes for market value, so he’s not going to lose a dime. We can’t do anything with the land until we have possession of it.”
Kane said that there have been multiple offers made to help redesign and build the plat. The only thing stopping them from breaking ground is the ownership of the land.
“I have no idea what he could possibly be thinking,” said Kane. “I’m totally against paying for it because it should be given to us. He’s said he wants to make sure it’s taken care of properly. What does he care? It’s like someone selling you their house and coming back to see if the living room is clean. It’s ridiculous. There’s no reason for him to want to hold onto this land.”
On Sunday, people gathered to pay their respects to those who died in the tragic fire, which was one of the deadliest nightclub fires in American history. Members of the Foundation carried with them a petition that asks Villanova to reach out to them.
The letter can be found on their website at stationfirememorialfoundation.org and reads, “we beseech you to kindly provide us with an acknowledgement or a statement of what is to become of the aforementioned site. We have become immobilized by a lack of communication from anyone with respect to the physical site itself. We respectfully request that a statement of what the future intentions are for this site or an acknowledgement of this letter be provided.”
Additional visitors continued to pay their respects yesterday.
“It’s tough walking around and seeing all the crosses,” said Eric Hanson. “It’s not a very inviting scene and it’s not easy to look at.”
After losing her sister nine years ago, Garvey feels the same.
“I just want to memorialize them,” she said. “That’s what it’s always been about for me. Being a part of the foundation and meeting the other families and survivors, it’s like I knew every one of them.”
To learn more about the Station Fire Memorial Fund, visit stationfirememorialfoundation.org.