WEST WARWICK, R.I. - An indoor fireworks display meant to kick off a heavy metal concert late Thursday turned a roadside nightclub into a gruesome firetrap, killing at least 96 people and injuring nearly 200 in the deadliest nightclub fire in a quarter-century.
The band, Great White, was just seconds into its first song when a set of spark-making canisters on stage ignited soundproofing insulation on the club's walls and ceiling.
Flames raced toward the back of the room, and as thick black smoke poured through the audience, cheering gave way to pandemonium as hundreds stampeded for the front door, trampling and crushing those who had fallen beneath them.
People inside the club described a scene of panic. Friends screamed for one another as a power failure doused the lights. People tossed chairs through windows to escape. Others crawled on all fours to keep smoke from their nostrils while clawing toward the exits. But many never made it out.
"It was complete, complete chaos," said Christopher J. Travis, a utility construction worker who suffered minor burns while pawing his way through the darkness to an exit. "People were screaming, people were burning up, you could smell the flesh burning."
Yesterday evening, firefighters were still pulling bodies from the smoking skeleton of the one-story building, stopping for a moment to pray after each grisly discovery.
Families waiting for word of their loved ones gathered at a hotel in neighboring Warwick as the state medical examiner began the grim task of identifying the human remains, some so charred and disfigured that state health officials expected to use DNA to make matches.
Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch said at a news conference that a "potential criminal investigation" was in its early stages. But he declined to answer questions about who the state police had interviewed and who, if anybody, might have been civilly or criminally responsible.
The club, called the Station, occupied a 60-year-old, wood-frame building on a commercial strip at the edge of this struggling former mill town, about 15 miles southwest of Providence. It lacked a sprinkler system, but officials said yesterday that none was required because of the club's age and small size.
The club, they said, had recently passed a fire inspection. Still, officials said, it lacked a permit for pyrotechnics. City Council members said the club had generated few complaints, other than occasional gripes from neighbors about loud music or improperly parked cars.
The club's owners, Michael and Jeffrey Derderian, sought to distance themselves from the catastrophic fire yesterday, saying through a lawyer that the band never requested or received permission to use pyrotechnics.
But the band's singer, Jack Russell, disputed that, saying the band manager had received approval.
Paul Woolnough, president of Great White's management company, said the tour manager "always checks" with club officials.
"I'm not going to reply to those allegations, but I do know that the club would have been informed, as they always are," Woolnough said.
However, other club owners where the band had played recently said its use of pyrotechnics had taken them by surprise. A week ago, the group set off pyrotechnics at the Stone Pony, a club in Asbury Park, N.J.
"Our stage manager didn't even know it until it was done," said Domenic Santana, owner of the Stone Pony. "My sound man freaked out because of the heat and everything, and they jeopardized the health and the safety of our patrons."
In a series of news conferences across the street from the club yesterday, Rhode Island Gov. Donald L. Carcieri made clear that he would devote the full extent of the state's investigative resources to figuring out how a neighborhood fixture turned into the deadliest club fire since 164 people died in a nightspot in Southgate, Ky., in 1977.
'Asking for trouble'
"This should not have happened," he said before a crowd of TV cameras and news crews from as far away as Japan. "It's an old building, without a high ceiling, and if you set up pyrotechnics, you're asking for trouble. There's a lot of issues we'll have to look into."
Leo Costantino, a West Warwick town councilman, was more blunt. "Anybody who's familiar with that building who would do pyrotechnics has got to be insane," he said. "It's a wood-frame structure. The idea that you could set up pyrotechnics in there is ludicrous."
A cameraman for local TV station WPRI, a CBS and CNN affiliate, was inside the club Thursday night filming for a future segment on safety in the aftermath of the Chicago nightclub fire last week that killed 21 people. One of the club's owners, Jeffrey Derderian, is a reporter for WPRI.
The Station, a former Italian restaurant that sits unobtrusively next door to a used car lot, had been a gathering spot for fans of such 1980s heavy metal groups as Quiet Riot, Ozzy Osborne and Judas Priest - and the tribute bands that played their music.
The building's facade bore murals of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, and inside hung framed guitars signed by the aging rockers who had performed at the club.
Rhode Islanders who grew up on the heavy metal explosion of the 1980s remained loyal to the club into adulthood, even though they have less hair now, larger waistlines and more kids.
Waiting for word
"This had been like our little musical world," said Chris Raposa, a bass player for a local band called God's Little Joke and a father, who paced outside the club yesterday awaiting word on friends who had been at the concert. "I've been crying since 1 in the morning."
The catastrophe is being felt especially keenly in Rhode Island, a tiny state famous for the web of familial ties that seem to make everyone here someone else's cousin. In many ways, West Warwick is Rhode Island writ small, a tiny former textiles town of blue-collar families and strip malls where neighborhoods bear the names of the mills that gave them life.
Linda Waldroup, 47, a laundry aide at a nursing home who has lived in West Warwick for 20 years, came to the club yesterday to pay her respects.
None of the victims' names had been released as of yesterday afternoon, but Waldroup knew in her heart that many would be familiar to her. "This is a small place," she said. "You either know people, or you're related to people, or you know somebody that knows somebody's that's related to people."
Donna Miele, 40, of West Warwick, came to a command post set up in a restaurant across from the club yesterday afternoon because she hadn't yet heard from her brother and sister-and-law, Michael and Sandy Hoogasian.
She said her brother, a 31-year-old Coca-Cola salesman, had run into Russell, Great White's lead singer, at a Rhode Island tattoo parlor a few hours before the show. She said her brother had asked for a tattoo of a flame, and that Russell was so taken by Hoogasian's enthusiasm for the band that Russell personally invited him and his wife to the show.
"He was so excited," Miele said. "He was like a 14-year-old, he was so happy."
Yesterday, the only sign of the Hoogasians was their car, which was still parked outside the club. "We haven't heard anything on them," she said, her eyelids moistening. "Their names are not on any lists at the hospitals."
Great White was the third band to play Thursday night. The club was nearly full. Concert-goers, most in their mid-20s to late 30s, were shoulder to shoulder in some places, though officials said attendance was below the 300-person capacity.
In interviews yesterday, concert-goers said the band had launched into its first song, "Desert Moon," about 11 p.m. Russell was jumping on stage, revving up the crowd as he prepared to sing the first lyrics. As the music grew in a crescendo, three fireworks canisters between him and the drummer sprayed a shower of sparks.
A special effect
For a moment, as a few small flames licked the wall, some concert-goers said they thought they were seeing a special effect. Even when it became clear that the fire was unintentional, many thought it could be put out quickly. One man said yesterday that Russell tried to douse it with a cup of water he had on stage. Another man said he had the fleeting thought that he could smother it with his jacket.
But within seconds, flames were streaming across the walls.
"It appeared as if the walls and ceilings were soaked in oil - that's how fast it was," said Ted Pezzellini Jr., 33, a home security sales manager, who escaped with second- and third-degree burns on his ears, which bore gauze bandages.
For a few moments, he said, there was an orderly procession for the doors. "It was very calm initially," he said. "But when people were being burned and were unable to breathe and the lights went out, that changed.
"Everyone hit the floor, and I must have thought a dozen times, 'I'm going to die.'"
He said the smoke was so thick he couldn't see six inches in front of him. He got out, he said, by homing in on a man's voice outside the club shouting for those trapped inside to come his way.
Rush for front door
The club had four exits. But smoke obscured the exit signs and witnesses said nearly everyone inside made a rush for the front door.
A former bouncer at the club, Mario Giamei, 38, of Sutton, Mass., knew the interior of the club well enough to head for one of the side doors. "The problem was that nobody went for the [side doors]," he said. "They all went for the front door."
Even before he got out, Giamei said, he could feel the temperature in the room climb sharply: "It was like being inside a gas can after you throw a match."
Outside, dozens of people were choking from the smoke, tearing off burning clothing and trying to smother the flames by rolling in the snow.
Christopher Travis, the construction worker who crawled on all fours to safety, recalled the horrific scene:
"People were jumping out covered in blood, their hair was burning off, they were blistered and blackened."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.