Published February 24, 2003
WEST WARWICK, R.I. – It was a convoy on a heartbreaking trip — shuttling busloads of family members to the heap of charred wood and blackened debris where their relatives died.
Under gray skies and rain, they prayed, they cried and they hugged as they said goodbye to the relatives who were unable to escape the nightclub inferno apparently sparked by a rock band's pyrotechnics. They left behind flowers, photographs, poems and stuffed animals at the site.
"These families are going through such a tragedy, such an emotional odyssey right now, and their hearts are broken, and they still don't know in many cases whether their loved one has been positively ID'd," Gov. Don Carcieri said early Sunday. "They need space, they need an opportunity to grieve and they need an opportunity that is unencumbered by any of us."
A few hours later, the governor delivered more grim news: Yet another body had been found Saturday in the rubble, bringing the death toll to 97.
"We've gone over the site and over the site and hopefully there are not many more," Carcieri said.
After the families mourned privately, about 150 people crowded into a small chapel with acoustic guitars and other instruments for a memorial service filled with song and prayer.
"We came to pray for the families and the victims," said Teresa McQuiggan, 76, of East Providence, who like many others at the service didn't know any of the victims. "And last but not least, we're here to pray for the dead."
Another memorial was planned for Monday night.
Meanwhile, investigators continued to pore over the rubble and interview witnesses and victims, while the state attorney general weighed whether to file criminal charges.
The governor said Sunday a moratorium on pyrotechnic displays had been issued for clubs in the state accommodating 50 to 300 people, and that 200 deputy fire marshals would fan out to inspect the sites beginning Monday.
Sunday was the first time the victims' parents, siblings and children were allowed to walk up to the charred rubble of nightclub. For days, they've lived with the video images of their relatives jammed in the doorway of the burning building, many screaming in terror as they struggled in vain to break free.
Several people were overcome with emotion. At least one had to be taken to an ambulance.
"There was, as one would expect, a lot of hugging, a lot of crying," Carcieri said.
A chain-link fence ringing the site was hung with mementos — from flowers to photographs. Many of the relatives, estimated by one official at the scene at about 400, tossed red roses over the fence, adding specks of color to the black and gray ruins.
A photo collage titled, "Our Loving Mother," lay among the hundreds of items. The smiling woman was blowing out her birthday cake in one picture; laughing, hugging her children in another.
"We have not given up hope," read a note from the family of a 30-year-old who remains missing. Only 42 of the victims have been identified.
Near the fence, a flatbed truck serving as a temporary memorial was piled high with cards, flower bouquets, American flags and even an unopened can of Budweiser.
"It's unbelievable," said James Morris, 36, who along with his two sons were among a steady stream of mourners who stopped by. "It's just awful. They were all young guys in their 20s, early 30s."
Morris, of Warwick, said he was supposed to attend the concert Thursday night, but didn't feel like going out. Six of his friends went without him and haven't been heard from since.
Another mourner left a rosary-draped plaque that reads: "No farewell words were spoken, no time to say goodbye. You were gone before we knew it, and only God knows why."
During the hourlong memorial Sunday night at St. Francis Chapel and City Ministry, the Rev. Frank Sevola said it would be through the comfort of others that the mourners would heal.
"This evening feels so wrong and so violent," Sevola said. "This community and its reaction to this tragedy is what will get us through this terrible time."
Eighty survivors of the fire remained hospitalized Sunday, about two dozen of them in critical condition.
Three days after the blaze, questions remained about whether the heavy metal group Great White had permission to set off the fireworks — and whether anyone should face charges in the deadly blaze.
Great White was just getting into its first song when sparks from the pyrotechnics ignited foam tiles in the ceiling and quickly spread flames over the crowd of more than 300. Fire officials said the entire building was engulfed in three minutes.
The club did not have a permit for the special effects. While the leader and an attorney for the band — which returned to Los Angeles without guitarist Ty Longley, missing since the blaze — have said the group got permission from the club before setting off the special effects, the club's owners insist they never approved pyrotechnics use.
"It was a total shock to me to see the pyrotechnics going off when Great White took the stage," said Jeffrey Derderian, a Providence television reporter who had owned the club with his brother since 2000.
Derderian spoke publicly Saturday, breaking down in tears and struggling to regain his composure as he talked about the victims.
"This tragedy has claimed the lives of our friends," he said, "people who are husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. We will somehow live with this grief, like so many other people, for the rest of our lives."