5 Years After Nightclub Fire, Survivors Struggle to Remake Their Lives


February 17, 2008

WEST WARWICK, R.I. — Savagely burned in the fire that incinerated the Station nightclub here five years ago next Wednesday, Linda Fisher has endured a dozen surgeries to salvage her arms, her hands, her face.

Donovan Williams, who was badly burned, hopes settlements will help some.

Ms. Fisher inhaled so much smoke that anguishing night that even now, she gets winded carrying a basket of laundry. Her thick scars keep her from sweating normally, and she has trouble distinguishing hot from cold.

Ms. Fisher feels lucky.

“There are survivors who have no ears, eyes, nose, hair,” she said.

But, like so many others who escaped the inferno, she also simmers with darker emotions.

The survivors are still waiting for their lawsuit against the Station owners and dozens of other defendants, the largest civil tort case in Rhode Island history, to play out in federal court. Many remain furious that one of the club’s owners was sentenced to community service and the other is expected to leave prison next year.

They also feel forgotten. At first, all kinds of help poured in for the roughly 200 injured survivors and families of 100 others who died in the disaster, one of the worst nightclub fires in the nation’s history. But that help has all but disappeared, even though many of the injured face more surgeries, cannot resume full-time work, and struggle to afford heating oil and other basics.

“People that were making $30,000, $40,000 a year had to take jobs making eight bucks an hour because they are so physically challenged,” said Todd King, a survivor who lives and works in North Carolina now and runs the Station Family Fund, a grass-roots nonprofit group that still raises money for the worst-off victims. “They can barely use their hands, and they’re exhausted all the time because their bodies have been put through war.”

Mr. King’s fund has run dry three times in recent years and now has $82,000 — enough to help the neediest survivors for about six months, he said. He is hoping that the fifth anniversary of the fire, on Feb. 20, will elicit more support, but he and other survivors have their doubts.

“Most people don’t understand that a burn injury is a life injury,” said Ms. Fisher, 38, who gets a Social Security disability payment of about $1,000 a month. “If they think about us at all, it’s probably, ‘They must be all better, so why aren’t they back to work?’ “

Many believe the circumstances of their misfortune — that they were blue-collar folks gathered in a scruffy club to hear Great White, a has-been “hair metal” band from the ’80s — also help explain the lack of interest. The fire ignited when the band’s tour manager lit pyrotechnics on a small stage surrounded by highly flammable foam used as soundproofing.

“We were waitresses, house painters, contractors, strippers,” said Victoria Eagan, who escaped the fire with minor injuries but whose two best friends were badly burned. “If it had been people at the opera that night, there would have been a big difference.”

So far, tickets are selling poorly for a concert to benefit the Station Family Fund, planned for Feb. 25 in Providence. Dee Snider, the lead singer for the band Twisted Sister and the concert’s host, said country and Christian rock performers would join metal bands onstage to broaden the cause’s appeal.

“I’ve tried to get this away from being about hair bands, about heavy metal, and to make this a people issue,” Mr. Snider said. “Since nobody else is going to do it, it’s got to be musicians, all kinds of musicians, taking care of their own and reminding people this could have happened to anyone.”

Donovan Williams, a survivor who was burned over 70 percent of his body and was left legally blind, said he was counting on settlements from the lawsuit to really help people move on. Mr. Williams, who works in telephone sales, needs a ride to his job and cannot do quotidian things like opening jars and tying shoes.

“I’m all for moving on,” said Mr. Williams, 37, who spent 10 weeks in a coma and says he now sees as if looking through sunglasses with Vaseline on them. “The only thing I want is one of those huge TVs.”

A handful of defendants have settled, offering a tentative total of about $71.5 million. But with 300 plaintiffs and hefty lawyer fees, even a huge payout may not guarantee permanent comfort.

Ms. Eagan guessed that at most, an eventual settlement would help survivors and spouses of the dead — there are 23, and 65 children who lost one or both parents — to pay off their mortgages and provide for their families, even if they cannot resume work.

“I don’t think anyone is going to be made a millionaire and drive a Mercedes,” she said.

Two funds administered by the United Way and the Rhode Island Foundation raised almost $3.8 million for victims of the fire and their families, but gave out most early on. The state’s Crime Victim Compensation Program awarded grants averaging $8,800 to 222 claimants after the fire, but the government provided little else. A state request for federal disaster relief was denied on grounds that the fire did not meet the definition of a natural disaster.

Mr. King, Ms. Eagan and several other survivors started the Station Family Fund a few months after the fire, when they learned that one woman who escaped that night was losing her home. They sold thousands of shirts, held car washes, collected change outside grocery stores and organized benefit concerts, raising about $1 million over the last five years.

The group came under attack for accepting about $100,000 from Great White early on, with some survivors and relatives of the dead calling it blood money. The surviving band members — one died that night — are named in the lawsuit, but some, including Ms. Fisher, do not hold them responsible.

A longtime fan, she went to Pennsylvania to see the band perform again eight months after the fire and ended up joining the lead singer, Jack Russell, on stage. She wore a spaghetti-strap top so he could see her scars. Other disfigured survivors avoid going out in public, Ms. Fisher said, but she decided early on not to avoid the inevitable stares.

“I didn’t survive to sit home on the couch and cry,” she said.

On the anniversary of the fire, Ms. Fisher and other survivors will gather at a restaurant across from the former Station site, where a circle of ragged crosses form a makeshift memorial to the dead. Meanwhile, Ms. Fisher and Ms. Eagan are brainstorming about how to draw more support.

“We’ve been kicking around the idea of a black-tie ball, maybe at the Biltmore,” Ms. Fisher said, referring to the fanciest hotel in Providence. “A lot of the blue collar, average people who’ve already dipped into their pockets time and time again — you can only give so much.”

Courtesy of www.van-halen.com