The Station’s long shadow

By IAN DONNIS  |  February 20, 2008
Memorial_serviceINSIDE
REMEMBERING: Although the sense of a state pulling together has long since dissipated, those
affected by the fire keep alive the memory of the victims.

Tough time moving on
Some survivors, like Gina Russo of Cranston and Donovan Williams of Coventry — each of whom was given little initial chance of surviving their injuries — are faring relatively well.
 
Russo, for example, suffered burns over more than 40 percent of her body and underwent 15 surgeries just in the first year after the fire. As described in the Rolling Stone piece, she passed out from black smoke in the gruesome pileup of club patrons trying to flee through the main exit. After emerging months later from a medically induced coma, she learned that her boyfriend, Freddy Crisostomi, the father of her two young sons, had perished, from smoke inhalation, in the conflagration.
 
Like many survivors, Russo feels short-changed that a trial never took place. “People who were not impacted, I would imagine that a lot of them would like to see us just go away,” she says. At the same time, Russo, 40, says, “I’m pretty good at this point.” She has gone back to work full-time, as an outpatient service representative at Rhode Island Hospital, she got married last May, and she doesn’t face additional surgeries in the immediate future. “I’m making the best of my life,” she says, “and doing the best I can.”
 
Donovan Williams was profiled in the Providence Phoenix on the first anniversary of the Station fire. After a spontaneous decision to attend the show, he, too, blacked out while in the tangled mass of people at the club’s front exit, waking up outside to find he was naked except for his shoes and that skin was hanging off his arms. Burned on 75 percent of his body, he went into a medically induced coma at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, his chances of survival placed at less than 50 percent.
 
His injuries left the one-time graphic artist at Graphic Innovations in Providence blind in his right eye, with minimal vision in his left, and unable to ply his former trade. Yet even a year after the fire, Williams, now 37, exhibited a sense of calmness.
 
“I had to reinvent myself,” he says, describing how he currently works in sales and marketing. Williams says he spends most of his time thinking about his children, Zachary, 13; Hayley, 12; and Dylan, 7, and his hopes that they won’t be adversely impacted by the fallout from the fire. “[You] can’t dwell on what happened,” Williams says. “You have to keep climbing up the hill.”
 
Yet moving on is much more difficult for some other survivors.
 
Kathy Sullivan, of Swansea, Massachusetts, says not a day goes by that she doesn’t think of the two best friends who she lost in the Station fire. Asked what she would like others to remember, she says, “I’d like people to know that it’s still not resolved. Things are still going on with the lawsuit, and a lot of us are still struggling with our day-to-day needs.” A former veterinary technician, Sullivan can no longer work in that job and she is studying to be a dental hygienist.
 
Todd King, one of the volunteers who runs the Station Family Foundation, and who now resides in North Carolina, says such stories are not unusual — not surprising, considering how 65 children lost one or both parents in the Station fire. “A lot of people are still stuck in that moment,” he says. “A lot of people haven’t moved on.”
 
King says the Station Family Fund, which has raised almost $1 million, and distributed about $900,000, keeps running out of money. “We’re focused on making sure people can go to the doctor,” he says, and pay for their health insurance. The hope, King adds, is that the February 25 fundraiser will help provide a stronger foundation of support for the survivors with the greatest needs.

Lawyers, lawsuits, and money
For many Rhode Islanders, the Station case exploded back into the headlines earlier this month when it was reported that LIN Television Corporation, the parent of Channel 12, had offered $30 million to settle a civil lawsuit filed on behalf of Station fire victims. The station was sued, in part, because of allegations that a cameraman impeded an exit by filming the disaster scene. The cameraman and Channel 12 deny the allegations.
 
As the Providence Journal’s Tracy Breton reported in describing Clear Channel Broadcasting’s $22 million settlement offer last week, the broadcasting giant is among almost 100 defendants targeted in 10 lawsuits in federal court.
 
One impact of the Station’s aftermath could be seen when a state board in Massa¬chusetts this month closed a country club in suburban Randolph since it lacked a working sprinkler system. Yet in Rhode Island, efforts have continued to weaken aspects of what some call the overly stringent fire regulations enacted after the 2003 disaster.
 
While the post-Station atmosphere offered heightened scrutiny, for example, for the artists and musicians evicted a few years ago from an Olneyville building because of code violations, the general view is that heightened regulation hasn’t had a major effect on the local music scene. If anyone’s having a tougher time, it’s the smaller venues that have less capability to handle additional costs.
 
Although Governor Donald L. Carcieri offered a comforting presence after the disaster, the elected official most associated with the Station fire remains Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch, and some critics remain angry with him and Judge Darigan about the disposition of the criminal charges.
 
Yet Lynch, who shows every sign of gearing up for a gubernatorial run in 2010, has weathered the controversy; A recent Brown University poll put his approval rating at 50 percent — relatively good for an attorney general in Rhode Island.
 
Five years on, the Station disaster has become part of the state’s history, an event probably remembered by most as a tragedy that, because of a confluence of bad decisions, exacted a terrible toll.
 
Those touched by the fire don’t have the luxury of looking back with such a clinical summary. They were closest to the devastation, closest to the hurt, and their memory doesn’t easily fade.

Ian Donnis can be read at idonnis@phx.com. Read his politics + media blog at thephoenix.com/notfornothing.

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