We already know the story. On an icy night in 2003, a half-forgotten band in a half-forgotten club in a half-forgotten town ignited fireworks to kick off its set of 1980s nostalgia rock. The sparks from the fireworks ignited the dry, hyper-flammable soundproofing foam that lined the walls of the drummer's alcove. Within seconds, much of the building was ablaze. Within minutes, it had become a story that would beam from West Warwick around the world.
Flip through John Barylick's new book, Killer Show: The Station Nightclub Fire, America's Deadliest Rock Concert, though, and you're reminded how much you don't know: tickets for the show cost $17; patrons passed through a 33-inch wide opening to enter the building; Great White singer Jack Russell's last album had sold just 770 copies and his final $6,687.93 in savings had been seized before the fateful tour (the book's title comes from Russell on the day of the fire, "It's gonna be a killer show"); over time, freewheeling fire marshals had ratcheted up the Station's legal occupancy from 161 to 225 to 404 persons (the Providence Journal later determined that at least 462 were inside when the fire started); turns out there are fourth-degree burns, scorching bones and muscle; 64 children under age 18 lost one or both parents in the fire.
Barylick knows these facts, and he dispenses them with an attorney's persuasive precision. In fact, he was one of the attorneys on the plaintiff steering committee that won the mammoth $176 million settlement detailed in one of the book's appendices.
He has met all of the survivors at one time or another, he says, and he writes that, due to the science of heat and human skin, when you shake hands with these survivors, you notice their palms are often unharmed, while the backs of their hands required skin grafts.
I recently stopped by Barylick's office on Weybosset Street in downtown Providence to talk about the book. The interview has been edited and condensed.
WHY DID THIS FIRE HAPPEN? It was the culmination of multiple blunders on several people's part. It was the combination, most blatantly, of illegal pyrotechnics in an unsuitable venue, the presence of flammable wall coverings, the gross overcrowding of the club. Those are just the most obvious. [Other reasons include] some of the architectural details, such as pinch points built into the exits, ill-trained staff who denied exits to some people . . . the list goes on.
SOME PEOPLE ARE MAYBE GOING TO BRISTLE AT THE IDEA THAT A PLAINTIFFS' ATTORNEY IS WRITING A BOOK, SELLING A BOOK, AND MAYBE PROFITING OFF A BOOK. ARE YOU PROFITING FROM THIS BOOK? Certainly not at present. The book was never undertaken to make a profit. It's published by a university press, and it's often said that writing a book is not a way to get rich quick, it's a way to get poor slowly. And so far, there has certainly been no profit in it. Should we be so fortunate down the road as to generate a profit, there are several Station-related charities that you're probably aware of, including the [Station Fire] Memorial Fund, that could benefit from donations from me.