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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Nightclub Fire Kills at Least 26 People

Aired February 21, 2003 - 06:02   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: We have much more information now on that nightclub fire near Providence, Rhode Island. In addition to at least 24 people dead, at least 164 have been hurt.
Now, apparently fireworks ignited a stage in the club during a band's opening act. Several people are still missing, including a member of the rock group, Great White. You might remember them from the '80s. They sang that song "Once Bitten, Twice Shy."

They had a pyrotechnics display behind them. It ignited the fire about 11:00 p.m. Eastern Time last night. More than 300 people were inside the club at the time when the fire broke out. Many people thought it was part of the show, and then the stampede began.

We want to get a sense of what investigators are doing at the scene of that fire right now. Jason Carroll has been traveling all night long to get to West Warwick, Rhode Island. He is there now.

Describe the scene for us now -- Jason.

JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I want to start out with a little bit of updated information for you, Carol, and that is the town manager here in West Warwick has confirmed now that the number of dead has now risen to 26. At least 26 people dead as a result of that tragic fire.

Let me set the scene for you and describe exactly where we are. If you take a look behind me, you can see where that fire crane is there. That is where fire investigators are working at this time. We are told that bodies are still being pulled from the nightclub called The Station.

I'm going to give you a quick recap of what happened here just to fill in a few more details. It was about 11:00 p.m. last night when the rock band that you had said, Great White, had just taken the stage playing their first song. That pyrotechnic display ignited some foam backing that was used inside the nightclub. Fire quickly spread.

There was actually a photographer from a local station inside the club. He was shooting a feature story on the band, and was shooting as this whole thing unveiled. Tragically, he said that a number of people who were inside, when they were first looking at the fire display thought it was part of the act. Some people commenting, "Wow, look at that!" And then, people quickly realized that this was something that was not part of the act.

Shortly later, he came outside and described how he escaped, and how he helped others escape as well.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRIAN BUTLER, WPRI PHOTOGRAPHER: I noticed that when the pyro stopped, the flame had kept going on both sides. And then on one side, I noticed it come over the top, and that's when I said, 'I have to leave.' And I turned around, I said, 'Get out, get out, get to the door, get to the door!' And people just stood there.

There was a table in the way at the door, and I pulled that out just to get it out of the way so people could get out easier. And I never expected it take off as fast as it did. It just -- it was so fast. It had to be two minutes tops before the whole place was black smoke.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CARROLL: Joining me right now, Wolfgang Bauer. He is the West Warwick town manager.

Thank you so very much for joining us. Give me a quick update as you can in terms of the latest information. We now know that at least 26 people confirmed dead at this point?

WOLFGANG BAUER, WEST WARWICK TOWN MANAGER: Correct. And the fire people on the scene can see additional bodies, but I can't give you numbers. But I think the numbers will increase.

CARROLL: Obviously the fire marshal will be out here doing some investigating.

BAUER: He's here.

CARROLL: Do we have any indication at this point as to whether or not pyrotechnics were allowed, that they were within code in order to have pyrotechnics going off in a club of this size?

BAUER: I think that's an issue. I'm not aware of any permits, and there's some specific laws. And dealing with this in the middle of the night is not the greatest time to get the exact reading of statutes and so on, but that's an issue we're looking at.

CARROLL: There have been different numbers, various numbers floating around in terms of the number of people who were injured and taken to area hospitals. Update us in that way, if you can.

BAUER: The best figure that I have, and that's one of the things we're currently trying to do, is 164 people in the hospitals. I'm not aware that anybody has died, but I know there are a number of people in critical conditions and have been evacuated even from the hospitals -- they were taken to other hospitals in New England.

CARROLL: Obviously, we're talking about burns and smoke inhalation? BAUER: I assume that's what it is, yes.

CARROLL: What advice are you giving to families here in West Warwick, those who are trying to reach out to those who are unaccounted for?

BAUER: There is a center at the Crown Plaza in Warwick. And I'm sorry I don't have the number on me. That's being set up for relatives, for calls, for missing and to assist those that need help. Grief counselors are there and other assistance, and that's where people should go or that's where people should call.

CARROLL: I'm told here from some of the locals that The Station is a popular nightclub here in West Warwick. Obviously a lot of people were inside. Do we know in terms of capacity, were they within code in terms of the number of people who were attending this concert?

BAUER: Well, I donít know whether we know that or not. We're certainly looking at the numbers, but I think the person that may be able to tell us that is not accounted for. In other words, the person that was taking the money and selling the tickets has not been able to be found, and so I'm not sure how close we can get to actual numbers. I mean, people say what they see, but unless they're trained, it's very difficult sometimes to come up with the correct numbers.

CARROLL: So, where are we now in terms of this investigation here?

BAUER: The state fire marshal is here. My own people are here. And I think right now, they're looking at the scene, trying to remove the bodies, trying to be very meticulous about that to see if they can learn anything from those kinds of things, and then make some determinations.

CARROLL: OK, a terrible tragedy for the people here in West Warwick.

BAUER: Terrible tragedy.

CARROLL: Thank you so very much for joining us this morning.

BAUER: OK.

CARROLL: Really appreciate it.

BAUER: Sure.

CARROLL: Wolfgang Bauer, West Warwick town manager.

Also, Carol, there were a number of eyewitnesses who said that there were people who were coming outside the building who were burned beyond recognition. Some people who were still on fire coming outside. Just a completely horrific scene, that people had witnessed that while they were here -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Jason, stay with me -- I want to show the pictures once again from inside that nightclub taken by that local photographer -- to explain to people what that pyrotechnics display entailed. Apparently, they were like torches, giant torches set up behind the band.

And one pyrotechnics expert described it this way: They're sort of like, you know, when kids have sparklers on the Fourth of July, that's sort of like how they work. And every so often, there'll be a burst of sparks, and on one of the bursts of sparks, the sparks, of course, ignited the curtain and the ceiling of the club.

The question is, is why they -- were they so close to the back wall and the back wall had something flammable on it, and what was behind there? Some witnesses said there was some sort of foam behind there, which, of course, would help with the sound, to break up the sound waves in the band. But usually, that stuff is not flammable.

CARROLL: Well, in terms of the pyrotechnics, it's very much like those pyrotechnics that you would use on the Fourth of July, but normally in your front yard, not inside a home or a garage, whatever the case may be, because you have all of these sparks that come off of that.

The foam that was used -- of course, the fire marshal is here, as you say. The foaming that was used is used for sound, you know, so you can get to try to -- so you can try to get the best sort of sound when a band is playing on stage.

But it was obvious from that videotape there that whatever substance was ignited, whether it be the foam, whether it be the curtains, it ignited very quickly. Witnesses say that it spread extremely quickly.

COSTELLO: Yes, within three minutes.

CARROLL: So again, these are a number of questions that the fire marshals are going to have to answer.

COSTELLO: Something else to pass along to our viewers, Jason. Jack Russell, who is the lead singer of Great White, told a local television station he did check with the club's manager before the show, and the band's use of pyrotechnics was approved, but he said he could feel the heat of the flames while he was onstage even before the fire began.

CARROLL: Well, if you look at some of that videotape, and I've seen it very briefly, but you can see one of the band members immediately jumps off the stage at one point when he realizes that the fire was about to get out of control.

In terms of checking with the club manager, once again, the fire marshal will be checking with the club manager to find out whether or not they were within code.

On the surface of things, it seems hard to believe that that type of pyrotechnics-type of display would be allowed in a club with such a low ceiling with so many people. But once again, they'll have to check the books here with the town manager, they'll have to go back, they'll have to check the records, check the books, and find out whether or not the club violated some sort of a code.

COSTELLO: Yes, much more information to come out of this in the days to come.

Jason Carroll, I'll let you get back to your job, so you can get more information for us from the scene.

Of course, as Jason said, one person who was inside that club was a photographer for a local television station. He was actually doing a feature story on the band, Great White, the great '80s heavy metal band. He and others describe again what it was like when that fire broke out.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A lot of people did get out. The majority I would say got out. But to see people stacked on top of each other, and others heroically jumping in and trying to pull them off the top, out of the bottom, trying to push people back just enough to get someone loose, every life was important to everybody there. And the injuries ranged from minor burns to cuts and bruises from going through windows.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I haven't been injured. I've been trying to help people. My sister and I are fine. We came out totally unscathed, I don't know, by some godly miracle, and this is the worst trauma and just under a state of shock.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. I mean, I feel like I just want to cry and cry and cry and scream.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSTELLO: Well, you can see the blood on her sleeve there. She was trying to get people out of the club, because they were actually stacked up at the door. And many people died near the front door of the club.

As you might imagine, many injuries from this incident, at least 165 people in the hospital.

And one of them, Joe DiBona, a local television station, talked with his father, Joe DiBona, Sr., earlier, and he described what was happening in the hospital, and also his son's terrible injuries.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE DIBONA, FATHER OF FIRE VICTIM: We got a call, and he and his friend went to the place. His friend went to Lady of Fatima, and he couldn't find my son, Joe. And we panicked. Finally went to Kent County Hospital. They said, finally after a half-hour, an hour or so, we found out he was there. Then they transported him to here, intensive care unit, the trauma unit.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And his name?

DIBONA: And he's here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm sorry, his name?

DIBONA: Joe. Joe DiBona.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Spell that for me?

DIBONA: Capital D-I, capital B-O-N-A.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And your name, sir?

DIBONA: Joe, also.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Also Joe?

DIBONA: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What is his last name? What's the last name?

DIBONA: DiBona. Capital D-I, capital B-O-N-A.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you tell us again, when you were in the hospital, how...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Joe, Jr.?

DIBONA: Jr.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... what did officials in there tell you? What were they doing?

DIBONA: Well, they were very helpful. Very helpful. And of course, it was turmoil in there, and they were very helpful. That's all I can say, you know. And he's in the trauma unit, intensive care. He's heavily sedated. He's on a breathing apparatus. He's burnt pretty bad. It's devastating.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to see him?

DIBONA: Yes, it's terrible.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSTELLO: The DiBonas are trying to deal with their grief this morning, as their son hopefully is recovering in the hospital. Many people had burns over much of their bodies. In fact, eyewitnesses tell us that people were running out of that club in flames. It's a bad scene in Rhode Island this morning.

Let's take a look at this Web site right now. The heavy metal group, Great White, had just kicked off its concert when that fire broke out. And guitarist Mark Kendall is unaccounted for, and he is the guy in the middle. You might remember the band, Great White. It was known for its hit song, "Once Bitten, Twice Shy." In fact, the band received a Grammy award nomination in 1990 for that hit.

I'm on the Web site right now, and there is a message to many of their fans, because this fan has kept -- the band has kept many fans through the years. It has a large following.

The Web site says: "I'm sitting in front of the TV, just like many of you, waiting for more news on the horrible fire at the show at The Station. My thoughts and prayers are with everyone there."

And I'm sure that echoes what many people are feeling this morning.

For more details on the nightclub fire, go to CNN.com. You'll find more pictures taken from inside the club when that fire broke out. It will all be there. AOL keyword, CNN.

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