A darker focus

Rhode Island filmmaker revisits Station nightclub fire


He regaled us with nostalgic pictures of the cherished Rocky Point amusement park in "You Must Be This Tall," but now Rhode Islanders will see a more somber slice of its history when filmmaker David Bettencourt reveals his latest documentary that focuses on the Station Nightclub Fire.

“I think it’s time, now,” Bettencourt said last week, as word of his latest work was formally released. “It’s been nine years and as tragic as that fire was, I see this story as one of hope, especially in Gina Russo’s story. She has had 54 surgeries for third and fourth degree burns and yet she has found a way to live through it.”

"The Station" is being produced by Mediapeel, the public relations and marketing agency owned by entrepreneur Anthony Gemma. The first trailer for the film was released on Monday, the ninth anniversary of the fire. The film in its entirety will be released a year from now. Bettencourt marveled at the changes in technology since he finished "This Tall" only a few years ago.

“When I did 'You Must be This Tall,' I could only screen it in a few places in Rhode Island,” Bettencourt said. “Now, with webcasting, people can go to the film and watch it any time they want.”

The other big change is the industry’s switch to the DSLR format. Bettencourt said he doesn’t use tape anymore. What it means for filmmakers is that they have to worry less about technical stuff and more about what they're after creatively.

“With DSLR, you can shoot the equivalent of 400 feet of film without changing the lens or the f-stop,” he said. “It’s amazing. It allows me to get a lot closer to my feelings about the subject, to be getting exactly what I want.”

With technical stuff out of the way, Bettencourt can face the challenge of how best to memorialize the victims of the Station fire, “how best to honor the lost and damaged lives, the prematurely ended youth.”

Bettencourt is a devoted researcher. For his film about Rocky Point, he went to the Rutherford B. Hayes Memorial Foundation for information about Hayes. Most people who watched "This Tall" did not come out saying how elegantly Bettencourt presented the first telephone call from a U.S. president from Rocky Point, but it is in Bettencourt’s nature to know as much about his subject as possible before he starts filming.

“During the research phase of this project, I was haunted by the infamous 1942 Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston,” Bettencourt said in a press release.

A total of 492 people were killed in a popular nightclub with a legal capacity of 460, he recalled, and hundreds more were gravely injured. Today the site of the Cocoanut Grove is a small parking lot. There is a tiny commemorative plaque set into the sidewalk. People walk over it without seeing, without remembering.

“And just 61 years later, another fire in another nightclub savages us,” he said. “Are we incapable of learning from history? Are we really doomed to repeat it? Will the lessons of the Station fire go unheeded?”

"The Station," said Bettencourt, will serve to help us remember, to learn, and to heal. He said his responsibility to the Station Fire is more than that of an artist or filmmaker. He said releasing the film as a web series will bring the lessons of the Station Fire to many more people than a traditionally distributed film.

As with any tragedy that is experienced by more people than the victims, just about everybody remembers where they were and what they were doing when news of the fire spread almost as fast as the fire itself. First responders suddenly found their ranks swelled by off-duty firefighters, policemen, nurses and hospital personnel of all stripes stopped what they were doing and reported for work. Rescue crews from all over the region showed up, and as far away as Boston, burns specialists were scrubbing up and preparing for what they knew would be a long and gruesome night. Almost everyone in Rhode Island has a Station Fire story.

“I have a friend who lived through it,” said Katie Roach, who is editing the film for Bettencourt. Her friend was a regular at the club. “He knew where the exits were and got out easily. He has survivor’s guilt about it, even though he didn’t know how really bad it was until he got out and there wasn’t much he could do.”

But firsthand accounts of what happened that night are rarer and Bettencourt and thousands of other people are grateful to Gina Russo and Paul Lonardo, who paired up to write "From the Ashes," which is Russo’s account of that tragic night and life afterwards.

“Gina and I will be involved in the film,” Lonardo explained recently, in an appeal to survivors and their families to share their stories as part of the film. “We hope to get as many people involved in this project as possible so that the tragedy and the 100 lost lives are never forgotten. We want to make this an accurate historical document as well, so participation is important. If you can help us get the word out, that would be fantastic.” It may not be the most pleasant reading you will do in your lifetime but it is important that people hear Russo’s account and imagine themselves trapped in that inferno.

“With the stage engulfed in flame and the fire continuing to advance quickly across the ceiling, the band suddenly stopped playing. It seemed that everyone became aware that their lives were in danger all at once. The sound of shattering cocktail glasses and beer bottles could be heard all around. There was no panic. People just dropped their drinks and moved quickly away from the fire. Almost all of them headed toward the front door. Then the lights went out and the screams and shrieks of terror precipitated a stampede, snaring Fred and I in the middle of it. The crowd, which had seemed so sparse and navigable just moments before, congealed at once and our progress slowed to a near stop. It was pitch black. I was coughing from the smoke. Everyone was body-to-body. There was nowhere to go…Fred’s hands on my back, urging me forward the whole time, guiding me and keeping me on my feet. I realized that we had gotten close to the inner set of swinging doors near the ticket booth, which was just inside the main entrance…‘GO! GO!’ Fred screamed behind me. I was hardly aware that a fire alarm had been blaring until I realized that I could hardly hear him. Still, to this day, I can clearly hear Fred yelling this in my ear. These were the last words he spoke to me. The crush of the bodies was squeezing us apart, and then Fred gave me one last massive shove. Right after this, I felt his hand slip from my back. I immediately turned and looked behind me, but he was gone.”

It gets worse. Russo and Lonardo have reproduced the extreme terror of the moment, even if Russo thinks that words cannot.

“It was very strange, and hard to describe now. I hadn’t given up, but I knew I was close to death and I might not make it out. At that moment, my mind just seemed to accept this as inevitable ... I don’t know if I was pushed or if I blacked out, but my head struck the floor and that was it. It seemed to happen in slow motion. I remember it clearly, the feeling of falling and the impact of my head on the hardwood. I thought I was dead.”

Fortunately for us, she was not dead. And, as Bettencourt says with so much admiration, she has found a way to live through it.

But the film is far from finished and Bettencourt is still trying to reach and interview first responders, medical personnel and safety officials to assess what we, as a society, have learned that will help prevent future tragedies.

If you have a personal Station Fire story, Bettencourt can be reached at 454-8585 or at mooka27@yahoo.com. Paul Lonardo is at 743-3812 or Palonardo@aol.com.


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