WARWICK — “What prevails here today, and always, is the promise made to them then, the one hundred beautiful souls that left us, that we pray to be at peace with the good Lord, who lent them to us as great and cherished gifts. May they rest safe in His peace, and may you and I keep our promise to them, to never forget, until we meet again.”
It is with these words that Father Robert Marciano, the pastor of St. Kevin’s Parish, ended his emotional homily on the Mass held at St. Kevin’s on February 19 commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Station Nightclub Fire.
Father Marciano was the principal celebrant for the 10 a.m. Mass, with Father Alfred Ricci and Father John E. Unsworth as concelebrants. Also present was Coadjutor Bishop Richard G. Henning, who sat in choir.
Among those present in the congregation were first responders, as well as survivors, their loved ones, and family members and friends of victims.
“How fitting that we gather as people of prayer, to allow our faith to once again guide us, and to listen to the words of the Gospel, where a new message is preached of love,” Father Marciano said in his homily, noting that Christ’s message of love found a particularly profound expression in the acts of heroism and emotional and spiritual support personified by the first responders and those who helped the survivors and the families of the victims. This should bring to mind “that message of hope and that message of goodness that no fire can touch or fire remove,” he said.
Father Marciano, who serves as chaplain to both the Warwick police and fire departments, was serving in that capacity on the night of the tragic fire, which broke out in the Station Nightclub in nearby West Warwick on February 20, 2003.
He spoke of his immense gratitude, and that of the whole community, towards the firefighters, police officers and medical personnel present.
“Talk show hosts and pundits often debate the duties and compensations of our first responders. I told them all that they had just earned their entire pay for their whole career in this one night, in this one tragedy, and we could never, never repay them,” Father Marciano said.
At the end of Mass, Erin Abodileo, a parishioner at St. Kevin’s Parish and a senior at the Prout School, sung “Amazing Grace” in honor of all of those who had died during the tragedy. Announcing Abodileo’s performance during his sermon, Father Marciano remarked, “It is often said that when words fail, music speaks,” prompting the faithful to contemplate the words of the song and meditate upon the power of God’s grace.
After Abodileo’s moving rendition of this song, and before the granting of the final blessing, Bishop Henning offered words of comfort.
“Memory is a very important part of what it means to be human,” Bishop Henning said.
Thanking Father Marciano for inviting him to be present at the Mass, Bishop Henning said, “As a new Rhode Islander, I’ve received many expressions of welcome and hospitality. It has been extraordinary. But today, I am deeply aware of the magnitude of the gift I am being offered, and that is a share in the memory of this community. So I thank all of you for this sacred task of keeping memory alive.”
Bishop Henning noted both the great honor, but also the great responsibility involved in leading people during times of struggle.
“I am not only grateful today for the gift and that trust of sharing in your sacred memories, but I am grateful for the witness of love which is so evident here in this remembrance.”
Bishop Henning added that it is when people work together to fight adversity that love finds its most powerful expression.
“For love is expressed when survivors come through great adversity, struggle through healing, and give us that witness of their care, one for another, for their families and communities. Love is witnessed in the first responders who run towards danger and not away. It is witnessed by medical professionals who work with the sick and the injured, and help them through that struggle. It’s witnessed in families as they struggle through adversity and come together more closely as families. It is witnessed in the family of the Church, and the family of communities, as loss and suffering turns to a deep expression of solidarity and of compassion, one for another. This is the love that Jesus reveals to us. It’s the love that in fact does heal, does redeem, and does give us hope and bring us to new life.”
Bishop Henning visited the Station Nightclub Fire Memorial with Msgr. Albert Kenney, vicar general and moderator of the curia, on the 20th Anniversary of the Station Nightclub fire.
“On this day I pray that those lost find eternal rest, that survivors and family members find strength and consolation, and that all Rhode Islanders remember and recommit themselves to a deep and abiding care of neighbor.”
Bishop Thomas J. Tobin also visited the memorial on February 19 to offer his prayers.
“Today I stopped to visit the Station Fire Memorial Park, where 20 years ago 100 lives were lost in a tragic fire,” he shared on Twitter. “I thought of and prayed for those who died, those who were injured, and their families and friends who continue to grieve. May God give comfort and peace to all.”
The memorial Mass was followed by a reception at the Father O’Hara Hall, where those present were treated with refreshments as they socialized with one another.
“It is overwhelming,” said Gina Russo, one of those in attendance. Russo is a survivor of the Station Nightclub fire, who was inspired by her experiences to become more involved in raising awareness of the disaster. Russo frequently works to help organize events to memorialize those who died, and is a member of Survivors Offering Assistance and Recovery (SOAR), an organization that offers counseling to those who survive fire-related tragedies.
“I’m so grateful and blessed to this community. They stood by me, they trusted me to do this, to bring a team together to honor the 100 people who died, and honor the survivors, too. It means a lot, what Father Marciano put together.”
Russo went on to note that a major part of the healing process was not only the physical healing, but also the realization that her survival served a larger purpose. “There was all the medical intervention in the world, and they helped me live. But, God trusted that I needed to stay, and I always say that I hope I’m doing good.”
Russo’s sentiments were repeated by others. Thomas Rowan, a retired fire chief who worked with both the Warwick and East Greenwich fire departments said that a sense of community and mutual support was important for the healing process.
“Over the course of the years, some of the survivors have organized into a great support group, and hopefully that offers some solace to those who were injured and lost loved ones,” Rowan said.
“I wish Tracy was still here,” said Jody King when asked what his initial thoughts were on the day’s events. Tracy, Jody’s brother, on the night of the Station fire, was working as a bouncer at the club. Tracy had helped several people escape the club once the fire started, at the expense of his own survival.
Jody continued to note that in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, many people gave him the emotional and moral support he needed to make it through this difficult time, including several high-ranking political figures in the State. This includes former Governor Donald Carcieri, who many survivors nicknamed “the Station father,” and who King calls “my second father.”
King was motivated by all of this to become involved in various activist organizations, including helping to found the Station Education Fund and build a memorial of the event in Apponaug.
Also present in attendance were Governor Daniel McKee, former governor Donald Carcieri, and former mayor of Warwick Scott Avadesian.
“I think, first of all, Father Marciano and the Bishop did a wonderful job. It was a beautiful Mass. It set the perfect tone, because it was all about the families, and those poor souls that were lost, and hopefully they are with the Lord,” said former Governor Carcieri, who noted that all Rhode Islanders have a duty to celebrate those who have raised awareness, those who help survivors, as well as to pray for the souls of those who died.
“I’m just grateful that we could gather, and pray together, and remember those we lost and also console the survivors and the families,” said Father Marciano.
The events surrounding the Station Fire, while tragic, also provide an opportunity to grow in virtue, explained Father Marciano. “It’s a tragedy. But, there was great tragedy, but even greater heroes. That’s what we saw that day. And our faith gets us through it.”
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