A place of hope

Park dedicated to the 100 who lost their lives in The Station fire in 2003

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Jody King had only one word for the newly opened Station Fire Memorial Park in West Warwick: “Wow.”

“It was really Rhode Island that built this,” said King, who lost his brother Tracy to the 2003 fire. King spearheaded a memorial site in Warwick and played a key role in construction of West Warwick’s park.

The park of artificial turf, walkways, stations featuring a small monument for every victim, and elements of music are on the site of The Station nightclub where 100 people lost their lives when a pyrotechnic display at the beginning of a concert set the building ablaze on Feb. 20, 2003. A name, photo and birth date are inscribed on each person’s “speaker box” shaped monument. At the back of the pavilion is a wall that tells the story of The Station, the fire and its aftermath. In addition, sentimental items left at the site and collected throughout the years are now stored in an underground vault and will remain part of the permanent memorial.

An estimated 2,000 people, including survivors, family members of survivors and victims, local elected officials and others who came to observe gathered at the park on Sunday afternoon to formally dedicate it to the 100 victims of the fire that was one of the worst in both state and national history. It was simultaneously a musical occasion as some danced to the opening performance from Steve Smith and the Nakeds and a solemn, peaceful afternoon of reflection and remembrance.

NBC 10’s Gene Valicenti emceed the event. Father Robert Marciano, who as chaplain of fire and police departments was present the night of the fire, Senator Jack Reed, Congressman Jim Langevin, Executive Minister of the Rhode Island Council of Churches Reverend Donald Anderson, Governor Gina Raimondo, former Governor Donald Carcieri and General Treasurer Seth Magaziner were among those who offered remarks.

Many speakers praised the park itself and the work of The Station Fire Memorial Foundation. Magaziner called it a “tremendous and important achievement” that would serve to educate generations to come. Anderson, who led the crowd in prayer, said it would be “a site of hope, a reminder that the lives lost on that night were not lived in vain.” West Warwick Town Council President David Gosselin said those who helped erect the park “turned a very bad tragedy into a peaceful place where families and friends can come back to have some peace and closure.”

Others who spoke took time to share their own memories from the night of the fire and largely praise the first responders who acted on the night of the fire and in the days after. Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian recalled how police and firefighters from both Warwick and West Warwick worked together that night, remarking on how their unity has lasted through the years.

“It didn’t matter if they had a Warwick department uniform on or a West Warwick department uniform on,” he said.

Raimondo said her brother Thomas, a doctor specializing in pulmonary diseases at Kent, didn’t come home for three or four days following the fire. To this day, he still talks about what he saw, she said. She promised the survivors and families of victims that they weren’t alone.

“You’re here with emotions and a heavy heart and a great deal of sadness. But know that you’re not alone. And know that you’ll never be alone, because we the people of Rhode Island love you and care for you,” she said. “We’ll remember and will always be there with you and for you.”  

Langevin vividly remembered the morning he turned on his television and saw the news of the fire. He had felt “shock, disbelief and sadness” at seeing a familiar location in a state of tragedy. Langevin also spoke to how deep the impact of the fire ran.

 

“It seems that we all knew someone in that tragedy that night. Somehow, we were all impacted,” he said, adding that he later discovered a distant cousin of his had died and one of his neighbors narrowly escaped.

Carcieri spoke of the “raw pain, sadness and heartbreak of losing loved ones so unexpectedly” that persists, but hoped the park could be a place of comfort.

“It is our hope that the creation of this beautiful memorial park will commemorate and honor the 100 souls of your loved ones whose lives were taken. It’s also our hope that this will be a place of prayer, solace and reverence for you, the families so devastated by those losses,” he said.

Carcieri said those who worked to create the park worked tirelessly to ensure it would appropriately honor the victims and their families. He discussed how the fundraising goal for the park was $2 million, much of which came from in-kind donations of labor and materials. He cited Centerville Bank, Washington Trust, the Providence Journal, Amica, Ocean State Job Lot, Gilbane Building Company, United Way and the Rhode Island Foundation as “just a few” of the biggest donors.

Many specifically credited Gina Russo, President of The Station Fire Memorial Foundation and a survivor who lost her fiancé to the fire, for her leadership.

“The most amazing, inspiring people, I think, in the world are those who can take pain and suffering and somehow muster the courage and love to turn it into something life giving, and Gina’s done that,” said Raimondo.

Russo was teary-eyed as she thanked family, friends, foundation colleagues, students and those who helped make the park possible. She shared a message of resilience with the crowd, encouraging them to always “rise above” adversity.

“A tragedy happened on this site, but you can rise above anything. No matter how hard life becomes, think about it, stop, breathe and just rise above it because I promise you life is really, really good,” she said. “I learned that 14 years ago when I thought I’d never survive this with all the injuries and all the pain. But I surrounded myself with incredible people.”

Following Russo’s remarks, a recording of the names of all 100 people who died was played. Students from West Warwick’s Deering Middle School held up roses as each name was read. More music ensued as Joe Silva played “97 Angels,” a song he wrote for the initial 97 victims but that also addressed the three who passed later. Hope Valley native Billy Gilman came as a surprise musical guest, performing his song “There’s a Hero.” He recalled seeing the fire make national headlines while recording his fourth album in Nashville.

“It’s amazing that this finally has been erected to remember the ones that were lost. It’s a sad thing but an amazing thing that the families can always come to and remember and have a place of peace,” Gilman said. “I love where I come from. I’m a proud 401 Rhode Islander, and I’m very honored that they asked me to sing one of my songs for the event.”

Though tears flowed during the dedication, members of the crowd could be seen smiling and hugging each other as they exited the park, proving the existence of the hope and strength those who built the park intended to bring.

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