Skip to main content
CNN EditionU.S.
The Web     
Powered by
powered by Yahoo!

Survivors recount crushing, fiery escapes

Robin Petrarca, right, is embraced by her friend Jessica Studley at the scene.
Robin Petrarca, right, is embraced by her friend Jessica Studley at the scene.

Story Tools

more video VIDEO
News footage from inside a Rhode Island nightclub captures the instant that a rock band's pyrotechnics ignited a deadly fire and celebration turned to fear and flight. (February 21)
premium content

Devastated, Great White singer Jack Russell tells affiliate WCVB how he reacted as flames consumed the wall behind his band. He says the band had permission for the pyrotechnic show. (February 21)
premium content

  • Capacity: 300
  • Four working fire exits
  • Fire sprinklers were not required
  • Passed annual fire inspection

    Source: West Warwick Fire Chief Charles Hall

    (CNN) -- Pressed between blinding black smoke above her and bodies beneath her, Lisa Shea felt certain she would die in the West Warwick, Rhode Island, nightclub fire.

    "The whole place got tons of black smoke. We were breathing black smoke," a shaken Shea recounted Friday morning with her voice still raspy from the ordeal. "I got knocked on the ground. People were standing on my back, my head. I was holding my head and I said, 'I'm going to die here!' All I could think about was my mother, and I said, 'I got to get up! I got to get up!'"

    Shea found her way to another room and leaped through a window to safety. She recalled seeing people pressing clumps of snow against their scorched skin. "It was the worst thing I'd ever seen. It was terrible."

    On Friday morning, Shea said she was going to the hospital because she had been vomiting black soot thoughout the night.

    Harold Panciera witnessed the fire spread from the outside of the building and helped a trapped man get out. Panciera said he and the trapped man could not see one another but could hear one another's voices.

    "I started throwing snowballs in there and I said, 'Can you feel the snow? Crawl towards the snow.' And he did," Panciera said. "Then I could see him, and he was severely burned all over his upper extremities. I pulled him out. And there were people laying all over the parking lot and they were just smoldering."

    'Is that part of the show?'

    Brian Butler, another patron, was at the Providence-area Station nightclub, which was hosting a concert by the band Great White. He said many fans watching flames creep down the wall behind the band during its pyrotechnic display thought the fire was part of the show and didn't immediately panic.

    Rena Gorschalies was one of them. "Someone said, 'Is that part of the show?' and I said, 'I think it is,'" Gorschalies replied. "I was watching it and the waitress said, 'I think there's something wrong, you should go out the door. You should leave.'"

    Once clubbers realized the seriousness of the fire, escape became extremely difficult.

    Witness describe rabid flames enveloping the ceiling. Burning debris fell on Laurie Hussey as she fled.

    "Everything was OK until somebody tried to jump over my head and a bunch of us pretty much got knocked down," Hussey said from her hospital bed. "I was halfway out of the building and then a gentleman was trying to pull his girlfriend and me both out because I was on her."

    Butler was in a crush of people pushing through the front door. He got out, but that exit soon became a death trap. "I went back around the front again and that's when you saw people stacked on top of each other trying to get out of the front door. And by then the black smoke was pouring out over their heads, out the side windows on the other side."

    Jack Russell, the lead singer for the band Great White, said in an interview Friday morning that he quickly realized something was wrong with the band's pyrotechnic show. "I tried to put it out with water bottles," he said. "There were no fire extinguishers on the stage. The worst part was when the lights went out."

    Butler, a television photographer, was at the club that night videotaping a segment on nightclub safety. " I noticed when the pyrotechnics stopped, the flame had kept going on both sides," he said. "I never expected it to take off as fast as it did. It just, it was so fast. It had to be two minutes."

    John Schmidt said the decision to leave quickly saved his life because the flames sprinted through the building. " I was very close to the door," he said. " I'm telling you right now, we wouldn't be having this conversation if I was in there another 20 seconds."

    Story Tools
    Subscribe to Time for $1.99 cover
    Top Stories
    Father guilty of killing 9 of his children
    Top Stories
    CNN/Money: Security alert issued for 40 million credit cards

    International Edition
    CNN TV CNN International Headline News Transcripts Advertise With Us About Us
       The Web     
    Powered by
    © 2005 Cable News Network LP, LLLP.
    A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.
    Terms under which this service is provided to you.
    Read our privacy guidelines. Contact us.
    external link
    All external sites will open in a new browser. does not endorse external sites.
     Premium content icon Denotes premium content.
    Add RSS headlines.