R.I. Town Has Seen Its Share of Hardship

Over the years, this town forged by ethnic mill workers has endured in spite of tough times, even as vanishing industries sapped its economy. Now it must cope with a loss that seems almost too much to bear: nearly 100 people dead in one of the nation's worst fires.

"People are just heartbroken. We struggle one step forward, two back," said restaurateur Arthur Brown.

A solemn atmosphere pervaded his dining room, where an American flag covers the back wall. At one point, a customer broke into tears without warning, sobbing "It's just so sad," recalled waitress Courtney Baris.

The fire devoured a local nightclub in just minutes late Thursday, trapping and killing almost 100. Few bodies had been identified and there was no word Saturday on how many victims had lived in West Warwick.

"The waiting is killing us," said Sav Giusti, a lifelong resident of this city of 30,000.

Giusti believes that once all the bodies are identified, most residents will find they knew someone who was in the club during the fire.

"It floored me, and then I thought of my children and friends," said Florence Swanson, a hairdresser in a salon near the burned-out nightclub. "It could be them." It wasn't.

"It's hitting everybody terribly," said Helen Cournoyer. "The loss is massive for a small city."

West Warwick split off from Warwick in 1913. West Warwick, peopled by descendants of Italians, French Canadians, Irish, Poles and Portuguese, took the busy textile mills, while Warwick kept tourism and a waterfront view of Narragansett Bay. At the time, it seemed like a fair deal for West Warwick.

Today, however, nearly all the textile companies have moved away. Businesses that clothed, fed and relied on their workers also folded.

In recent years, many in West Warwick hoped for better days in the prospect of an Indian casino. However, the state has blocked that project so far.

Through it all, West Warwick residents found consolation in family, friends, church and team sports. A sign in front of one restaurant said: "May God bless all victims and their families."

After the fire, the mechanisms of community quickly kicked in. Local banks opened accounts for donations. Local officials checked on prospects for state or federal disaster aid. Planning started for memorial services.

Although it had been clamping down on overtime because of the bad economy, the town government mobilized hundreds of police and firefighters to remove bodies and join the investigation.

Town employees checked on the needs of victims' families and arranged counseling for shaken recovery workers.

"I know they feel like they didn't do enough. They had to leave people in there. The building was collapsing," said Jeanne Marie DiMasi, a Town Council member.

On Saturday, Terry Benton stopped to photograph the wreckage of the club for friends who have moved out of town.

"It's sort of a landmark -- to me it was anyway," said Benton, 69, who grew up a mile away and still lives nearby.

Mike Laboissonniere, who grew up across the street from the club, was already looking ahead.

"We have a unique blend of ethnic backgrounds. I think that toughens people up," he said. "We've always been the underdog. It will take awhile, but we'll come back."