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Nightclub Fire Kills 39 People

Aired February 21, 2003 - 07:01   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: We begin this morning with a deadly fire at a Rhode Island nightclub. More than two dozen people are known dead at this hour; others are still missing.
The fast-moving blaze broke out in the packed club during a performance by the 1980s metal band, Great White.

Photographer Brian Butler from CNN affiliate WPRI was inside ironically working on a story about nightclub safety, as onstage fireworks got out of control and quickly spread.


BRIAN BUTLER, CNN AFFILIATE WPRI PHOTOGRAPHER: It was that fast. As soon as the pyrotechnics stopped, the flame had started on the egg crate backing behind the stage, and it just went up the ceiling. And people stood and watched it, and some people backed off. When I turned around, some people were already trying to leave, and others were just sitting there going, "Yes, that's great!" And I remember that statement, because I was, like, this is not great. This is the time to leave.

At first, there was no panic. Everybody just kind of turned. Most people still just stood there. In the other rooms, the smoke hadn't gotten to them, the flame wasn't that bad, they didn't think anything of it. Well, I guess once we all started to turn toward the door, and we got bottlenecked into the front door, people just kept pushing, and eventually everyone popped out of the door, including myself.

That's when I turned back. I went around back. There was no one coming out the back door anymore. I kicked out a side window to try to get people out of there. One guy did crawl out. 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.

I noticed 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.


ZAHN: Right now, we go to West Warwick, where Jason Carroll is standing by outside of what used to be the club with the very latest.

Good morning -- Jason.

JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And good morning to you, Paula.

It's really just a completely horrific scene out here in West Warwick. As we've been standing in front of The Station, the nightclub, we've seen a hearse go back and forth.

I have a little bit of updated information for you. We are now being told that the number of dead is now confirmed at, at least 39, and there are still several bodies that are still in that wreckage behind me that still need to be recovered.

Right now, I want to bring in Peter Brousseau. He is the chief of police here in West Warwick.

Mr. Brousseau, why don't you start out by explaining where you are now in terms of the investigation? What's happening there behind us?

PETER BROUSSEAU, CHIEF OF POLICE, WEST WARWICK, RHODE ISLAND: The investigation is in its initial stages. We're still in the process of trying to gain access to the building. Because of collapses from the fire, we're having trouble getting in to do the initial investigation.

But we are interviewing people who were in the club, members of the band and members of the staff of the club at this time.

CARROLL: And the area that you're trying to get to is obviously the area near the stage, is that what you're talking about?

BROUSSEAU: That's correct. That's where we'll start out.

CARROLL: Do you have any estimation in terms of how many bodies are still there inside?

BROUSSEAU: No, we believe there will be quite a few more that we have to remove from the building.

CARROLL: There seems to be many questions about whether or not building codes were violated, and whether or not the club had the particular type of license necessary in order to have those types of pyrotechnics inside. We're hearing reports that the club did not.

BROUSSEAU: That's one of the areas we're investigating, and at this time, we're not able to confirm that, but that is something we are looking at. CARROLL: That you're looking at. What else are you looking at in terms of the investigation? I know that you've been interviewing the club-goers. Are you hearing anything about entrances that may have been locked? Or was that...

BROUSSEAU: We're not finding that to be the case, no. There was a police officer on duty on an outside detail, and as part of his job function, he checked all of the entrances and exits when he started his detail. I don't think that was the major problem. I think it was a fast-moving, smoky fire unfortunately.

CARROLL: And it seems that in terms of from eyewitnesses it really was. Some saying that the club was engulfed within six minutes or less?

BROUSSEAU: It could have been. I'm not sure of the exact number, but it was a very fast fire.

CARROLL: I know that you were talking to some of the people who narrowly escaped. And were they telling you that it was difficult to get outside because of the heavy smoke? What is it exactly that they were telling you?

BROUSSEAU: That was one of the problems, the heavy, black smoke that was generated by the fire, it caused visibility problems, and that could have led to the people not being able to get out of the building.

CARROLL: Because there was a back entrance as well, correct?

BROUSSEAU: Right, that's correct.

CARROLL: But it seems as if everyone went for the front entrance.

BROUSSEAU: That seems to be the case, yes.

CARROLL: And that's how many of them became trapped.

BROUSSEAU: Yes, yes.

CARROLL: A number of people have been taken to area hospitals. Update us in terms of those numbers.

BROUSSEAU: Approximately 164 people were transported and are now being treated.

CARROLL: Obviously, West Warwick is a small town. A number of people here as I came up. One gentleman said to me, you know, "When I heard about what happened in Chicago," he said to himself, "How could that possibly happen?" And then he said, "Now it's happening here."

What sort of feeling are you getting from people here in the community?

BROUSSEAU: It's a tragic loss, and my condolences to all of the families of the victims. And it's just something that you never thought would come to a small community like this. We thought this would be a big-city problem. It's hard for me to believe the whole situation.

CARROLL: Obviously, fire investigators are going to be here at the scene for quite some time. Are you getting any estimates as to how long you'll be out here?

BROUSSEAU: We'll probably be here for a number of days investigating the scene.

CARROLL: In terms of trying to reach the bodies that have yet to be recovered, I know that is gruesome work. I know that is very difficult work for you and your men. What -- how long is that process expected to take? And what are you going to do to try to get into the area that is blocked by all of the debris?

BROUSSEAU: We'll attempt to complete that process as quickly as possible. We're in the process of having a heavy crane come in to move some of the debris to make that process easier. I think, hopefully sometime within the next few hours, we'll be able to get into the areas we're not being able to gain access to.

CARROLL: All right, our condolences to you and your community. Thank you so very much for joining us.

BROUSSEAU: Thank you.

CARROLL: I certainly appreciate it. I know it's been a very difficult morning and a difficult night. Thank you again.

Peter Brousseau, chief of police from West Warwick.

So, Paula, as you heard, very difficult for the people here in this community. This is a small town, a relatively small town. This is something that affected so many people here.

Obviously, fire investigators are going to be out here for some time. They are also going to be checking their records to find out whether or not the club owners of The Station had the particular license that was necessary in order to have the type of pyrotechnics that were used during the band performance -- Paula.

ZAHN: Jason, before we let you go, we want to show our audience now an aerial to give them an idea of just how tragic this is. This is what that area looks like this morning. And you were just making the point that they're going to have to investigate what kind of supervision there was.

My understanding is that they have had onstage pyrotechnics in the past. But according to the leader of the band, there was not a licensed expert to supervise the fireworks. Has anybody confirmed that yet this morning?

CARROLL: I've got to know that the fire marshal is here. That is the report that -- a report that we are hearing is that the club did not, in fact, have the type of license that was needed for the type of pyrotechnics, the large pyrotechnics that were used during this particular act.

From looking at the videotape, which I know that you've seen, it appears -- I mean, the ceiling in the club is relatively low when you compare it to the type of pyrotechnics that was used. So perhaps that there was an understanding that pyrotechnics could be used inside the club, but perhaps there was some sort of miscommunication in terms of the size of what was being used, and that's something that the fire marshal is going to be checking into.

ZAHN: Jason Carroll, thanks so much.

Jason is trying to get the confirmation about how quickly this club went up in flames. The leader of the band, Jack Russell, described it as going up like a Christmas tree. He said at first he tried to put it out with a bottle of water. He said, "I turned around and the building was engulfed. My sound man is injured. I'm on my way to the hospital."

And here is a little bit more of what he is telling reporters this morning about what he witnessed last night.


JACK RUSSELL, LEAD SINGER, GREAT WHITE: We rarely use pyrotechnics. We use them when we get permission from the clubs, because you can't just walk in and start blowing stuff up. It's not, you know -- and we got permission before we did this. I walked onstage. The show went on as usual. All of sudden, I felt a lot of heat, and I turned around, and I see the foam is on fire. I mean, what kind of -- why is that foam -- you know, that's not the right kind of stuff you use.

So, I started trying to douse it with a water bottle thinking I'm going to put it out. And the next thing you know, the whole place is in flames. All of the lights went out, no security lights. And I'm trying to get back in to pull people out, and people are grabbing me, and I'm yelling, 'Anybody in there, anybody in there?' And they wouldn't let me get back in. I'm hearing voices, but I couldn't back in because it was so dark.

I'm just -- I am so saddened. It's such a tragedy, and -- I'm sorry. I'm really in shock right now, and...


ZAHN: That was Jack Russell, one of the leads of the band.

Once again, the fire chief now of West Warwick is confirming 39 dead. At least 50 people were taken to nearby Kent Hospital. They are being treated for first, second and third-degree burns. Sixteen folks apparently to Rhode Island-area hospitals in critical condition this morning.


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