Ensuring their memory lives on
Sunday’s snow, wind and cold couldn’t keep family, friends and survivors from gathering to observe the 10th anniversary of the Station Nightclub fire. One of the worst fires in the country’s history, it took the lives of 100 and injured nearly 200 more when pyrotechnics ignited flammable foam on the ceiling of the club during a Great White performance on Feb. 20, 2003.
Among the tears and the sadness, remembering and honoring lost loved ones, those that braved the elements Sunday had reason to celebrate, as not only the plans for a permanent and lasting memorial on the site of the former club were revealed, but ground was also broken.
With snow falling early Sunday morning, and the forecast of high wind gusts and very cold temperatures, some may have wondered if the 10th anniversary memorial service would be held, but the Station Fire Memorial Foundation (SFMF) put any doubts to rest when it posted a message on its Facebook profile saying, “We are NOT canceling, the snow is not too bad. The site will be plowed. It may be cold, but we will still be there. 1 p.m. as scheduled.”
In addition to the unveiling of the final design concept for the permanent memorial and the groundbreaking, the service included many guest speakers and a few musical performances.
The service began with an invocation by Rev. Marie Carpenter, director of Eldercare Ministries, American Baptist Churches of Rhode Island, and was followed by remarks from Governor Lincoln Chafee, who said, “It’s up to us, the living, to ensure your loved ones live on.” Chafee then quoted from the Book of Matthew in the Bible, saying, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
Following Chafee’s remarks, Joe Silva performed a song he wrote about the tragic events called “97 Angels.”
Silva said he played at The Station many times and wrote the song after he realized many of his friends had gone on to Heaven.
“I’ve heard that song a million times and it has the same effect every time. Thank you,” said SFMF president Gina Russo.
Next to speak was Dr. David Harrington, director of the Burn Center at Rhode Island Hospital, who worked on many of the victims of the fire.
“We live our lives in a community that we think we know but don’t realize it’s a bigger community,” he said. “I didn’t know anyone who was involved in the Station fire before it happened, but now they are all linked to me.”
Harrington said the patients he and his staff worked on and the families they talked with inspired them.
“People needed the burn practitioners in the hours and weeks and months to follow, but we also needed you,” he said. “This is a hard job and we need your hope and stories of success to keep us going.”
Former Governor Donald Carcieri, who was governor at the time the fire occurred, was on hand to offer his thoughts.
“Being here brings it all back; it washes over me,” he said. “There are three images that are fresh in my mind. First, Gina and the Board [of the Station Fire Memorial Foundation] and so many are just a testament. The pain, anguish and heartbreak that were felt that night, asking how and why it happened, why loved ones were lost or injured … we all felt angry, but being here 10 years later, those feelings are as vivid as they were that day.”
Carcieri said the second image to stay with him was the “tremendous outpouring of love, caring, support and generosity that came from everywhere around the state.”
“The first responders had tremendous caring for what happened here; all the medical staff – the Shriners [Shriners Hospital for Children in Boston] hadn’t taken adults before, but they responded to their needs – it was more than just a job for them. They could see the pain and were committed to doing everything possible to cure that,” he said. “Also, the clergy doing all they could to make people comfortable with all the pain they were going through. The whole state was hurting for everyone that was affected. In a time of our state’s worst tragedy, it was our people’s finest hour.”
Carcieri said the third image was the “overwhelming sense and power for those lost to be remembered and not forgotten.”
“I admire the dedication and perseverance of Gina and the Board to hang in there and make sure these people are never, ever forgotten with a wonderful and fitting memorial.”
Sarah Mancini, the mother of Keith Mancinci, who was the bassist for one of the bands opening up for Great White that night, spoke about her son.
“This is a day of remembrance and a day of hope for the future. I could have written a Bible of my thoughts and feelings for today, as I’m sure many of you could, that have lasted for 10 years,” she said. “I come here often because I believe Keith’s spirit is here, along with the other 99 that perished.”
Mancini described the Station as “Rhode Island’s ‘Cheers,’” saying it was a place where friends gathered together for laughter and good times.
“It was to be a great night, but in seconds it ended in tragedy and Keith’s smile was gone forever,” she said.
Mancini said she experienced every emotion possible before realizing she couldn’t live with all that bitterness and something changed. She said she remembered Gov. Carcieri’s message about being given a second chance and to do something with it.
“That’s stayed with me all these years,” she said. “I want to turn today into a day of hope and I will keep the survivors in my prayers.”
Richard and Jean Moreau spoke about the loss of their daughter, Leigh Ann.
“We lost our daughter Leigh. She left the world at 21, when she was just starting adult life,” Richard said.
Richard said his daughter was completing her degree requirements for a Bachelor’s in Art Therapy with high honors.
“She worked with young people with disabilities to help them express themselves through art. She cared for the people she worked with and was planning to attend graduate school,” Richard continued. “She was artistic and loved music, and would attend many concerts … Music brought her much joy and brought her closer with people.”
Richard said his daughter loved her family and friends, and was loyal, always standing up for her family and her beliefs.
“She was a sensitive soul,” he said. “I think she had a sense of what was about to happen before it did, and that’s based on conversations I had with her as well as her artwork.”
Richard then spoke of a painting Leigh did of a woman with black hair in a white dress walking toward a shining light.
“That painting spoke to family and friends about her life’s journey here on Earth,” he said, choking back tears. “I feel her presence often. Whenever I look down and find a heart-shaped rock in the yard or at the beach, I know it’s her way of saying she’s alright and is watching over us.”
It wasn’t only parents that spoke about lost children, as Angela Bogart talked about what kind of woman her mother, Jude Henault, was.
“When she died, I was just entering young adulthood at the age of 19 and learning to appreciate who she was as a mother,” she said. “I had just two years to know and understand her as a mother and a friend, but I thank God for that.”
Bogart said at the age of 17, she often thought she knew everything and would fight back against her mother, but that all changed when she told her mother that her best friend had committed suicide.
“She became my best friend after that. She was an amazing mother to my younger brother and sister attending their sporting events, and she threw me a wedding when I was 19, which was dumb, but she just wanted me to be happy,” Bogart said. “I realized I’ve gotten to know her better this past decade than the 19 years I had with her. She will always live in me and though I wish she were here, I know she can guide me even better now.”
Bogart said her mother was always willing to try something new and saw the good in everything.
“She was a lover, free-spirited and fun, and everyone loved her,” she said. “I thank her for everything she did for me, including the punishments.”
Bogart said her mother strived to be the best mother she could be and always did the best for her children.
“The definition of a mother is one who bears and births a child, but it’s so much more – she has to be a friend, a cook, a chauffer, a detective, a caretaker, and I’m sure we could all come up with many others – my mother was all those things,” she said. “I believe that when I walk hand-in-hand with my little girl, that she’s holding the other hand to ensure that we never walk alone.”
After Bogart’s words about her mother, another musical performance took place. Human Clay sang “My Sacrifice,” which Russo said has become the anthem for SFMF.
“They’ve been with us through thick and thin, and anytime we’ve needed their help, they’ve been there for us,” she said. “Rick, Jerry and Mike – you’ve had my heart for a lot of years.”
Jessica Garvey, secretary of the SFMF, said her first time on the property was the Sunday after the fire when she was bused over from the Crowne Plaza to leave a picture of her sister, Dina DeMaio, along with roses, as part of a makeshift memorial that was forming.
“As the list of the missing became the list of those that died, more and more people visited and left mementoes for loved ones,” she said. “Candles and flowers covered the ground and a new memorial was started by survivors placing 100 crosses made from the flooring of the club on the site where the building stood. Each spring, there was pruning, mowing and cleaning to be done, but the property now belongs to us.”
Russo said she wanted to thank Raymond Villanova and his family, who owned the property where the club once stood, for trusting the SFMF to take care of it.
“It’s been an amazing honor to work with you these past years on the Board,” Garvey said, addressing Gina and other SFMF members. “I thought this day would never come, but today I can say our dream became a reality and we can present the design of the Station Fire Memorial Park.
“To honor, to gather, to celebrate, to pray, to support, to educate and most of all, to remember,” said Tom Viall, member of the SFMF memorial design team. “These have always been the goals of a permanent memorial at the site of the tragic 2003 Station Nightclub fire. A decade after the fire, and five years since submitting our first preliminary design, we are proud to present an updated and refined plan to the Board to begin the process of constructing a permanent memorial on the land now fully in their possession.”
Viall then detailed the many aspects that the Station Fire Memorial Park will feature, including an Aeolian wind harp above the entrance gate; a stone memorial plaque commemorating the date and time of the fire; memorial gardens; individual monuments; a commemorative walkway paved with thousands of commemorative bricks purchased by friends, families and loved-ones to support the construction costs of the memorial; a gathering court at the center of the site to bring visitors together or to accommodate food service or open space for special events; eight memorial steps; and a memorial shelter.
Viall said the Aeolian Harp above the entrance gate will be visible from Cowesett Avenue and will contain strings representing each victim of the fire.
“One of the oldest of all stringed instruments, the Aeolian Harp uses only the vibration of the wind to create soothing and ethereal sounds,” he said. “As gentle breezes pass through the gate, the harmonic vibrations of each string will resonate, creating a musical soundtrack for the site reminding us how music was one of the main forces that originally brought people to this very spot.”
Viall said once visitors pass through the entrance gate, they can choose one of three paths that lead up to a pavilion set above 12 Memorial Gardens celebrating the lives of those lost. Each garden will contain individual memorials to the 100 victims, as well as a park bench for those who wish to sit and reflect.
“Each element of this design has been carefully planned to honor the spirit of those who have been lost and the hopes and prayers of those who will never forget,” he said.
Viall said placed along the perimeter of each garden will be eight to 10 individual monuments that will commemorate each victim with their name and date of birth, engraved in polished granite.
“Some visitors may recognize the general shape of these monuments that, like many of the park’s features, has been purposely designed to reflect the love of music shared by so many of the victims,” he said. “Each monument will also contain its own lighting source to offer soft illumination after dusk.”
Viall said the eight Memorial steps will be divided between either side of the Gathering Court.
“Each step will be dedicated to a group that played an important role in the tragedy and contain a quote, carved into the step, representing that unique group,” he said, adding the eight groups are the survivors; first responders; caregivers; volunteers; clergy; family members; friends; and the state. “The overall goal of the memorial steps is to tell the Station Nightclub Fire story in the succinct but heartfelt words of the many people so deeply touched by the event.”
Viall said the Memorial Shelter would be situated at the highest point of the lot.
“The formidable stone columns of the structure symbolize the tremendous strength of those affected by the fire, while the translucent roof panels supported by intricate trusses serve as a reminder of both the complexity and fragility of life,” he said. “This pavilion can be utilized for a variety of special events, or simply a brightly covered space to reflect and pray.”
Viall said the open-air Shelter would also feature a wrap-around porch overlooking the Gathering Court.
“Two ramps lead up from either side of the structure ensuring that the elevated structure is fully accessible,” he said. “The translucent roofing panels allow for diffused natural sunlight to filter through to the interior of the shelter during the day and will be illuminated from below at night.”
Viall said the rear wall of the shelter is the only part not open to the rest of the site, which will serve as an ideal location to showcase either a permanent history, or a series of revolving displays, telling the story and aftermath of Feb. 20, 2003.
Viall said the park would be fully ADA compliant and accessible to all visitors. A stone angel carving and book commemorating the names of the victims, both previously donated, will be displayed at the park, as well as a cherry tree, planted soon after the fire, that will be transplanted to a new location on park grounds.
“Through the use of sustainable plantings and paver coloration, visitors to the site may note a series of rings radiating out from each of the 12 Memorial Gardens,” he said. “This effect is designed to capture the ripple effect the fire continues to have far beyond the borders of the Ocean State.”
While there were often questions of when and if the memorial would ever get built, Viall said his team didn’t always have an answer for when, but the answer to if was “absolutely.”
“These are people who don’t give up or lose hope that they would build this memorial, and we’re honored to be part of that dream,” he said.
Rev. Dr. Donald Anderson, executive minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches, gave the reflection, in which he said, “We’ve come here today because we can be nowhere else.”
Anderson also spoke about how the tragedy unified the state.
“When we come, we’ll remember the 100 because they will never be forgotten, but another number comes to mind, which is one,” he said. “Ten years ago, we weren’t Democrats and Republicans, Christians and Jews … we were Rhode Island and I want you to remember that no matter what others say to divide us, we are one.”
After the reflection, the names of the 100 victims were read aloud followed by 100 seconds of silence.
One more song was performed, “Sometimes” by Lisa Markovich and Michael Kaczmarczyk, before SFMF members broke ground on the site by shoveling small piles of dirt.
Jody King, whose brother Tracy was lost in the fire, said the right people got it and did a good job with the memorial service.
“This is a way of making people never forget because we did forget and the tragedy in Brazil just happened,” he said. “The word needs to get out; this needs to be remembered and never forgotten.”
King was also impressed by the turnout for the service.
“For it being this cold, this windy and with this much snow, this is a great turnout,” he said, before adding some words to his brother Tracy. “I love you, Tracy. I’ll see you soon.”
Garvey said she’s “super excited” for construction work to start in the spring and hopes people are pleased with the design of the memorial park.
“It was bittersweet today, but I’m proud of how far we’ve come,” she said, adding that the SFMF is already taking requests for commemorative bricks. Information can be found on the SFMF website at www.stationfirememorialfoundation.org, or on the group’s Facebook page.