The rock band Great White took the stage in the packed nightclub to cheers and raised beers and launched into its first song, accompanied by a pyrotechnic display. Almost immediately, the ceiling caught fire. Within minutes, the entire club was engulfed in flames.
At first, many concertgoers didn't realize anything was wrong and kept cheering, said WPRI-TV cameraman Brian Butler, who happened to be filming in the nightclub. "I could see the reaction on other faces that they knew something wasn't right," Butler said.
At least 65 people were killed and more than 160 injured as patrons in The Station in West Warwick, about 15 miles southwest of Providence, frantically tried to escape the inferno late Thursday night.
"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 kept his camera rolling after he squeezed through the club's front door; once outside, he ran around to the back, capturing thick black smoke and flames billowing from that doorway.
Michelle Malardo, 35, of Coventry, R.I., said people screamed and stomped on each other as they tried to squeeze through the club's front door on Thursday night.
"They were jumping all over each other and they were on fire," Malardo said.
"There were so many people trying to get out of there that they were just trampling each other," she said. Malardo escaped uninjured, but her brother, Eric Malardo, 30, suffered burns and was being treated at a Providence hospital.
Sandy Lyons, 31, said she was one of the first people to get out of the club, and that the mayhem quickly spilled into the streets outside.
"People were just in shock," she said. "They were just trying to find their friends. It was just complete chaos."
Robin Petrarca, 44, of Warwick, said the band had just started playing when the pyrotechnic sparklers began shooting toward the ceiling, igniting the roof and wall.
"I never saw anything like it in my life," she said, wrapped in a blue blanket across the street from the fire.
She 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 moments later.
"I never knew a place could burn so fast," she said. "There was nothing they could do, it went up so fast."