R.I. Nightclub Blaze Kills at Least 96

At least 96 people were killed and 187 hurt after a Rhode Island nightclub erupted in flames during a rock concert Thursday night, Gov. Don Carcieri said.

Carcieri said about three dozen victims are in critical condition at hospitals in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. He said a lot of those people are "still touch and go."

Late Friday, the governor said seven of the dead had been identified. No names were released. At hospitals around the region, anguished relatives pleaded for help in finding loved ones they feared were lost in the club.

The governor added that "two or three" investigations had been launched to determine details about the deadly blaze.

The capacity of The Station, a one-story structure, was 300, but the number of victims and survivors suggested more were inside. The death toll rose steadily Friday as firefighters scoured the remains of the building.

Giant sparklers — called "gerbes" in the pyrotechnics business — set off onstage by the '80s heavy-metal band Great White apparently ignited foam sound insulation in the walls and ceiling of The Station in West Warwick, about 15 miles southwest of Providence.

Click here for video footage of the nightclub fire.

On Friday morning, the band and club management pointed fingers at each other.

Jack Russell, lead singer of Great White, told WJAR-TV he checked with the club's manager before the show and the band's use of pyrotechnics was approved.

But the club's owners stated they had not been informed, and the manager of a New Jersey club said Great White had set off fireworks there recently without clearing it with management.

Concert organizers also said Great White used pyrotechnics during a Feb. 7 show at the Pinellas Park Expo Center near Tampa, Fla., without discussing it with promoters or the venue.

West Warwick Police Chief Peter Brousseau told The Providence Journal that clubgoers, employees and the club's owner were being interviewed.

"Once our investigation is done, we will have a clear picture of who was at fault," he said.

Later, Brousseau said there would "most definitely" be charges against the nightclub's owners.

The disaster is believed to be the fourth worst club or dance-hall fire ever in the U.S., and the worst since 1977, when defective wiring sparked a blaze that killed 164 people in Kentucky. It also came less than a week after 21 people were killed in a stampede at a Chicago nightspot.

"To have the same thing happen in your town is just mind-boggling," said West Warwick Town Manager Wolfgang Bauer, referring to the Chicago stampede.

Robin Petrarca, 44, said she was within 5 feet of the door, but the billowing smoke was so thick, she couldn't see the exit. In the rush to escape, she fell and was trampled, but made it out.

"There was nothing they could do, it went up so fast."

The flames broke out at about 11 p.m. as Great White played its first song, and quickly engulfed the nightspot within three minutes, filling the building with thick, black smoke, West Warwick Fire Chief Charles Hall said Friday.

"All of a sudden I felt a lot of heat," said Russell. "I see the foam's on fire. ... The next thing you know the whole place is in flames."

Russell said he started dousing the fire with a water bottle but couldn't put it out, and then all the lights went out.

The Station's sound technician and stage manager, Paul Vanner, said the pyrotechnics sparked two fires. He said he ran to get a fire extinguisher, but by the time he got back the blaze was out of control.

Hall said the club passed a routine fire inspection on Dec. 31, but had no permit for pyrotechnics. With a small square footage and a legal capacity of only 300, the club was not required to have a sprinkler system, and none was installed.

The Station is co-owned by Jeff Derderian, a well-known local television reporter who had just taken a job at WPRI-TV, and his brother Michael Derderian.

A statement released by the Derderians' lawyer, Kathleen M. Hagerty, said that the club management was not told Great White would be using fireworks.

"At no time did either owner have prior knowledge that pyrotechnics were going to be used by the band Great White," read the statement. "No permission was ever requested by the band or its agents to use pyrotechnics at The Station, and no permission was ever given."

Paul Woolnough, president of Great White's management company, said tour manager Dan Biechele "always checks" with club officials before pyrotechnics are used.

"If there's any issue at all, then it's never used," Woolnough said. Biechele could not immediately be located for comment.

The owner of a well-known New Jersey club said Friday that Great White failed to tell him they would use pyrotechnics for a concert there a week ago.

"Our stage manager didn't even know it until it was done," said Domenic Santana, owner of the Stone Pony in Asbury Park. "My sound man freaked out because of the heat and everything, and they jeopardized the health and the safety of our patrons."

Brian Butler of WPRI-TV — the station The Station's co-owner had just begun working for — was filming the concert for a feature story on nightclub safety and saw the flames spread across the ceiling and people rush for the doors.

"People were trying to help others and people were smashing out windows, and people were pulling on people and nobody cared how many cuts they got, nobody cared about the bruises or the burns," Butler said. "They just wanted out of the building."

Butler's footage showed two columns of flame, which Russell told Fox News were not part of the act, shooting up the wall behind the stage as patrons cheered.

Dr. Joseph Amaral, president of Rhode Island Hospital in Providence, told Fox News that several dozen people had been admitted to his hospital, 18 with life-threatening injuries.

At an 11 a.m. EST press conference, Amaral and one of his top physicians said that the most seriously injured patients had a "fifty or sixty percent" chance of survival.

"This is obviously an incredible tragedy for everyone in Rhode Island. As much as we can prepare for anything like this the stark reality is hard to imagine," Amaral said. "One of the most remarkable things for me is the degree of inhalation injuries that everyone sustained."

Amaral added that of the 43 people admitted to Rhode Island Hospital, 17 had already been discharged. He said the patients ranged in age from teens to late 30s.

Hours after the fire, only a blackened shell of the one-story wooden 60-year-old building was left.

Hundreds of firefighters and police from across the state and neighboring Massachusetts and dozens of ambulances filled the neighboring streets. Tarps were draped on the burnt frame of the building.

Nearly 200 people gathered at a family center set up at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Warwick by the American Red Cross of Rhode Island. Grief counselors and clergy members were on hand.

Hundreds of firefighters and police from across the region and dozens of ambulances were on the scene. Rescuers were pulling badly injured victims from the fire as ladder trucks poured water over the flaming skeleton of the building.

Most of the bodies were found near the front exit, some of them burned and others dead from smoke inhalation, Hall said. He said some appeared to have been trampled in the rush to escape.

"They tried to go out the same way they came in. That was the problem," Hall said. "They didn't use the other three fire exits," which he added were functioning properly.

One West Warwick fire official told The Providence Journal that bodies at the entrance were "stacked in there like cordwood."

"The place went up within a matter of two minutes," witness John Kudryk said.

Vanner said one person from the band was missing. Russell identified him as 31-year-old guitarist Ty Longley, who had been with the band about three years.

Great White is a heavy metal band whose hits include "Once Bitten, Twice Shy" and "Rock Me." The band emerged in the Los Angeles metal scene of the late 1980s, selling 6 million albums and earning a Grammy nomination in 1990.

They continued to tour and make albums in recent years, maintaining a strong allegiance of fans from their glory days of the 1980s.

The worst nightclub fire in the United States was Nov. 28, 1942, when 491 people died at Boston's Cocoanut Grove nightclub. In 1903, a fire at the Iroquois Theater in Chicago killed about 600 people.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.