I learned the power of the written word Thursday afternoon as I sat with Jody King in his truck in front of the Station Fire Memorial in West Warwick.
Jody lost his brother, Tracy, in the nightclub fire that claimed 100 lives. He along with Gina Russo, a fire survivor, former Gov. Donald Carcieri and a group of dedicated people and a lot of contributors are responsible for making the memorial a reality.
Thursday was the 17th anniversary of the fire. No formal ceremony was planned and none will be held until the 20th anniversary.
Jody was at the memorial before the sun came up. He then went to work on the bay, where he has been quahogging for decades, returning in the afternoon. As we watched people enter through the stone gate and walk through the memorial park, Jody talked about that night and his search for Tracy, who was a club bouncer. It was a horrific scene as first responders carried bodies from the smoldering building and burned victims were triaged at the Cowesett Inn as ambulances and rescue trucks circled back and forth from hospitals.
It was a bitter cold night. I heard all the sirens from my house in Conimicut and realized this was something out of the ordinary. Usually, reporter instincts would have kicked in and I would have called police and grabbed a camera. But it was around 11 and I thought I could easily pay catch-up the following morning. I never even thought to watch the 11 p.m. news. In one way, I was blessed to have not witnessed the events of that night. The following morning and the days and weeks to come were difficult enough.
“I knew that night he [Tracy] was not coming home, but I couldn’t tell my mother,” Jody said.
We sat silently as another car drove up and a family with young children got out.
Jody said he loves seeing children visit the memorial. He hopes they will gain an understanding of what happened that night and how precious life is. He wants the story to live on, not the horror or the feeling of loss – although those can’t help but be a part of it – but how life moves on. He has found positives and holds onto them dearly.
Over a period of 10 years, he has been sought out by nine survivors who related how Tracy saved them. Tracy was a big and strong man.
How did the survivors know it was Tracy?
I don’t know why I didn’t think of it. There was a striking resemblance between brothers the survivors would never forget. Jody tells of the girl, who like so many had fallen to the floor in the stampede to leave the club when pyrotechnics ignited the insulation above causing a fireball.
“She felt someone pick her up and throw her out the window,” said Jody. “I looked into those [her] eyes and I could see Tracy in those eyes.”
Jody has those connection moments with his brother. He felt it Thursday after his morning visit to the memorial and he was out on the bay. Five years ago, he installed a stereo in his boat. Soon after he lost the remote, which he figured had gone over the side. However, on Thursday the remote fell out from between the stereo and the bulkhead. What’s more, it worked.
As we talked a woman came up to Jody’s window. She was carrying a plastic bag. She had a question. Jody lowered the window. She wanted to know if either of us had lost someone in the fire.
When Jody told her of his brother, she opened the bag and starting pulling out newspapers. She thought the papers were important. She couldn’t throw them away. She wanted someone to have them.
The headlines screamed across the front pages. The enormity of the tragedy hit me as it did 17 years ago, only now I also knew the personal stories of a family member who lost a loved one and, in the course of reporting, came to know survivors of the fire.
Those huge printed words can never be erased, nor can those who were lost ever be forgotten.