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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Great White Lead Singer Thought Club Had Approved Pyrotechnics

Aired February 21, 2003 - 08:00   ET

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

JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right now I want to bring in Jack Russell. He is the lead singer of the band Great White.
Jack, I know this has been a very difficult morning for you, and we really appreciate your being here with us.

Can you take us back to what happened the moment you took the stage? The pyrotechnics start to go off. Everything is fine at first.

JACK RUSSELL, GREAT WHITE SINGER: Well, the pyros that we use are indoor safe pyros, I mean. And we're on stage, everything was as usual. All of a sudden I felt the heat behind me. I turned around, and they had this foam stuff on the walls, which was obviously not flame retardant. And it's starts smoking.

So I'm looking around to throw some water on it. Try to do anything. And I figured somebody's going to come out with a fire extinguisher and put it out real quick. And nobody showed up.

And next thing you know, we're being grabbed offstage. Pandemonium broke out, the lights went out. Three lights went out. I got yanked offstage. I tried to go back in, because I heard people talking, yelling in there. I kept getting pulled out. They wouldn't let me go in there again.

The next thing you know, the space was -- It went up so fast. And, you know, what do you say? I mean, it's like, you know, I don't know what to say. It's such a tragedy. And this is not what this is supposed to be about.

There's obviously some, either miscommunication or mistakes made here, because, you know, we had gotten permission from the place to do this. Because this is something that we don't do every gig.

CARROLL: Meaning the pyrotechnics?

RUSSELL: Yes. We, you know, we advance to shows and we'll say we -- this is what we have, this is what it does. Is it OK to use here, or not? Some places say yes, no problem. Some places say no, we can't do that. We don't do it. It's not like a big part of the show, you know.

Tonight we had the permission to do it, set it up and it must have hit the foam stuff and whatever that is is very combustible, obviously. And it went off -- I mean, I can't believe how fast it went off. The thing to me that was the worst thing, I think was the lights going out. I think if they had stayed on, maybe more people could have got out, seen their way out of there, you know? I don't know.

CARROLL: So you had a combination of the lights going out and, in addition to that, the thick black smoke that eyewitnesses were telling us about.

RUSSELL: It was terrible. I mean, and I was -- I was, you know, I -- I mean, I would rather be, you know, in there myself than have these people dead. I mean, these are my fans and we love them. And I just -- I just -- There's no words to describe how I feel right now. I'm in total shock, in total shock.

CARROLL: Jack, we're also on with Paula Zahn. I know that she wants to ask you a few questions, as well.

RUSSELL: Sure.

PAULA ZAHN, ANCHOR: Jack, we're so sorry about what happened there last night. I know you just told Jason that you got permission to do the pyrotechnics display. And the police chief -- I don't know whether you had a chance to hear this -- confirmed this morning that no -- that a license was required to do that by the club, but the club never applied for it.

Knowing that, you know, what's your reaction?

RUSSELL: I think that would be -- Well, my reaction is that's very negligent, you know. I mean, obviously, when somebody tells us that we're OK to do pyro, we're going to assume that they've checked out and done their homework, you know? Because we're not -- We don't do this every night. We only do it when we have express permission of the owners to do it, because it's not our club.

I wouldn't come to your house and, you know, light your fireplace without asking your permission, you know? I'm shocked that it happened, I'm -- I -- There's no words to describe how I feel right now. I mean, it's just a tragic loss of life, and I think it could have been avoided, for whatever reason it happened.

And I don't know. I feel so bad for the people, you know? But I don't know what else we could have done. We -- I tried to put it out myself with some water bottles. That's all we had. There was no fire extinguisher on stage, you know? And next thing we know we're yanked out and the security lights went off. And then nobody could see anything.

So I don't know. I don't know.

ZAHN: Jack, and what happened from that point on? Because I know you described to the Providence, Rhode Island, "Journal" that the place went up like a Christmas tree. From the point the lights went out, how did you get out?

RUSSELL: Well, I was out. I got dragged out by the security, and my crew manager dragged me out of the building., along with the rest of the band, through the back door.

And the lights went out, and I went back in and tried to get back in. I'm yelling, "Somebody's in there, I heard some voices." I went to try to get back in, and somebody else grabbed me and said, "You can't go in there, you can't go in there.

I said, "Well, there's people in there. I've got to get in and try to help them out."

He said, "Well, you're going to get hurt."

I said, "Well, I don't care. I want to, you know, get these people out of there."

And they wouldn't let me back in. And the next thing you know, the whole place was going up in smoke, you know?

ZAHN: Yes.

RUSSELL: I don't understand it.

ZAHN: Oh, I know, the fire chief saying...

RUSSELL: Whatever the material -- the raw material that they had on the walls, you know, knowing that, you know, it should have been different. I mean, they should have said, "No, you can't use pyro." Now they didn't have permits, they should have made us aware of that. I don't know. And I can't explain to anybody or try to push it off myself. But it's just things should have been done, I think, a little more, you know, diligently.

ZAHN: Describe to us the scene, even though they wouldn't let you get back in there, after the point at which you're outside of the building, what you witnessed.

We had a woman named Lisa Shea (ph) on who was badly shaken up. Fortunately, she didn't sustain any major injuries. But she described people lying on their stomachs taking snow from the snow bank and rubbing it on their bodies to try to soothe some of their burn wounds. What did you see?

RUSSELL: Yes, it was terrible. I mean -- well, Thursday night there was a friend of (UNINTELLIGIBLE), a sound man. He came out and was just bloody, had his entire skin burned off. We put him on the bus, picked him up and carried him to the ambulance. And they just rushed him off, because he was really badly injured. They're got him over at Kent Hospital.

Then we tried to look around for some other people that were hurt, tried to get the addresses to coordinate. You know, we basically tried to do triage. You know, I was trying to walk around and talk to some people to make sure they were OK, you know? And, as amazing as this sounds, our fans were more concerned with me than they were with themselves. And that just, that made me even more sad. It's, like, you know, take -- I don't know.

I'm sorry I'm kind of speechless right now. It's just such a dramatic shock.

ZAHN: Well, listen, we understand. Now tell us about the status of -- of your band. Is it true that Ty Longley is among the missing, one of your guitarists?

RUSSELL: He's among the missing, you're right. That's why I'm getting ready -- when I get done with these interviews, I've been trying to get a hold of him all day long. I've been down to a few hospitals. He doesn't have any ID on him, so, you know, we don't know whether or not he's, maybe, you know, just in bed unconscious or can't get to -- you know what I mean? Can't get to a phone, and the doctors are treating him. That's what we're hoping, you know?

I don't want to see anybody get hurt, but you know, it's -- I'm going to spend the next few hours trying to track him down. I mean, he's got -- unfortunately, he's got, you know, his girlfriend at home three months pregnant, you know, and as far as we know -- this is horrifying, this is a horrifying experience.

ZAHN: And Jack, I know you've got to run off and do that very important work, but I think one of the most tragic things we've heard today from some of the patrons who said that even once the fire erupted, they stood there thinking the fire was part of the pyrotechnics display.

RUSSELL: You know, that's -- yes. But we knew better. I mean, when the wall starts to burn, you know something's wrong. You know, that's why I turned around and start throwing water on it, you know? And what else could we do? I don't know. I mean, there's was nothing -- I mean, there was nothing else we could do, unfortunately. I just -- I wish there was something we could have done.

ZAHN: Well, our heart goes out to you, the members of your band and all the patrons who...

RUSSELL: That's who I'm concerned about, you know? I mean, the fans, you know, who came out to the show. I mean, I'm fine, thank God, but you know, I would rather, you know, rather risk my life to save the people, you know? I tried to, but, you know -- And that's not to make me sound like a great humanitarian, but that is, you know -- I, obviously, care about people and I didn't want anybody to get hurt. Especially since we're supposed to be fun, enjoyable, you know?

ZAHN: And unfortunately -- Unfortunately, Jack, the descriptions we've heard from people trying to get out there, the behavior of the folks trying to get out of the building was much like you'd expect: a sense of panic and...

RUSSELL: And that -- I know. A bottleneck, people getting trampled on. I heard from one of our opening acts that they were at the front door and were trying to pull some people out that were actually alive on the bottom, but there was, like, bodies piled on top of them. And they couldn't get them out.

But I think that had a lot to do with the lights being out, you know? You couldn't see. And I couldn't see. When I tried to walk back in the club, I couldn't see two feet from my face. I mean, if the security lights had been working, maybe we would have got a few more people out. I don't know. I don't know.

ZAHN: Well, we hope you get some good news about Ty Longley. We're going to put up a picture of the band right now. Ty, one of the group's guitarists -- Did you even -- were you able to even talk to him as you all were being pulled off the stage? What was the last thing that the two of you said to each other?

RUSSELL: No, it was so fast. It went so fast. I mean, it was like for one second, like, the pyros' going off. Two seconds later, the fire was happening. When we realized that the place was on fire, you know, like I said, I stuck around for a few more seconds, looking for a fire extinguisher, waiting for somebody to show up.

After that, we got yanked out. I didn't see him come out with the rest of us, and we looked for him in the parking lot and everywhere else, couldn't find him. We decided to call the hospitals -- called around. He has no ID on him. So we're praying to God that, you know, he's just somewhere and he can't get at a phone, or he's incapacitated in some way, you know?

And my heart, and all our hearts, go out to the people that lost loved ones. I mean, there's nothing I -- There's no words that could describe the way I feel. So, you know -- How do you say you were sorry this happened? I mean, you know, it's just a terrible tragedy.

I've been in rock 'n' roll for 25 years and nothing like this has ever happened.

ZAHN: Well, Jack, our thoughts are with you as you search for Ty Longley and as you interface with some of the families who are so horribly affected by what went wrong last night.

Jack, best of luck to you and thank you very much for joining us at this painful time.

RUSSELL: Thank you very much. I appreciate it. I appreciate it. And you know, my condolences to everybody who came out to the show and got hurt and, you know, lost loved ones. My sincere condolences, I'm so sorry. I know that doesn't make you feel any better, but you know, that's heartfelt.

ZAHN: I know it is, and I'm sure that will provide some comfort to some of those families out there. Jack Russell, thanks again.

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