WEST WARWICK — Father Robert Marciano was present the night the Station Nightclub Fire claimed 100 lives and forever altered countless others on February 20, 2003. During a recent interview with Rhode Island Catholic, he recalled arriving at the scene of the tragedy.
“It’s life changing,” he said. “Obviously we train a lot for those extraordinary events, but you’re never really prepared for the overwhelming reality of what occurred that night.”
As chaplain of the Warwick fire and police departments, Father Marciano was among the clergy who arrived to comfort the families of victims and provide support to first responders at the scene of the fire. Now, 13 years later, he and other faith leaders throughout the state continue to support those affected by the fire by assisting in efforts to remember its victims through the creation of a memorial park.
“The faith community surrounded those families who lost loved ones as well as the injured and first responders to provide them with pastoral care,” he said. “Faith communities have legitimate differences, but this is one thing that’s all of us. We want to do what we can to help this dream become a reality.”
The dream Father Marciano spoke of is the Station Fire Memorial Park, a years-long effort by the Station Fire Memorial Foundation to honor victims at the site of the tragedy. Over the past 13 years, the foundation has raised $1.6 million of the necessary $2 million. Construction has already begun on the former nightclub property, donated in 2012, and a formal dedication ceremony is scheduled for fall 2016.
As the project reaches its final stages, the foundation has invited all faith communities in Rhode Island and the surrounding area to join in an effort to remember the victims, many of whom were active members of various houses of worship. In a recent video released by the Rhode Island State Council of Churches, Gina Russo, survivor and president of the Station Fire Memorial Foundation, recalled the support provided by her late fiancé’s parish, St. Matthew’s Church, Cranston, following his death in the fire.
“[The Station Fire Memorial Foundation is] working to build our park. And I think it’s so important to have the faith community involved. We couldn’t do this without the entire community and entire state of Rhode Island and surrounding neighborhoods,” she says in the video. “Everybody was involved. There were so many parishes and so many denominations that were involved very early on, it’s only fitting and right that they’re involved in the building of this project.”
The finished park will be open to the public and include a commemorative walkway, individual monuments to victims and areas for quiet contemplation as well as gathering. Parishes and other organizations that make significant donations will be recognized with bricks in the commemorative walkway. The project is designed to provide a peaceful environment where families can remember their loved ones and gather with those who share their experiences in a transformed space.
“It will be a place where families can go and find some peace from an event that took away so much,” said Father Marciano.
Msgr. Albert Kenney, vicar general for the diocese and moderator of the diocesan curia, has asked that parishes consider making a contribution to the memorial by taking up a special collection or conducting other fundraisers during the month of May. In an April 27 letter to pastors, he reminded the faithful of the great scope of the tragedy, which had an impact far beyond Rhode Island’s borders.
“As we all remember, 100 people died and hundreds more were injured, including many first responders, during the February 20, 2003 fire at the Station Nightclub in West Warwick,” wrote Msgr. Kenney. “It has been said that every Rhode Island life and household was affected by this national tragedy, the greatest loss of life in the history of our state.”
For those most directly affected by the Station Nightclub Fire, the memorial park promises to bring peace and a fitting memorial to a site that has for so long stood as a stark reminder of the tragic events of that night. By participating in efforts to commemorate those lost, the faith communities of the state can continue to serve as sources of healing for those still coming to terms with the fire.
“To make a gift to this would help remember those lost and make a place for those recovering to visit,” said Father Marciano. “A place that brought us such tragedy will bring us peace. It’s beautiful.”
For more information about the memorial, visit www.dioceseofprovidence.org. Participating parishes are asked to forward all collections to the diocese by May 31.