Enduring and remembering: The Station fire 20 years later


WEST WARWICK — Twenty years ago, Rhode Island experienced one of its greatest tragedies. The Station nightclub in West Warwick burned down on Feb. 20, 2003, during a concert by rock band Great White, leaving 100 people dead and more than 200 injured. It is the fourth-deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history. For those who lived through it or lost a loved one, healing from the horrific scars, both physical and emotional, takes time. For some, no amount of time will be enough.
To commemorate this milestone anniversary and promote continued healing, Gina Russo, president of The Station Fire Memorial Foundation, has organized a Mass of Remembrance to be offered at St. Kevin Church in Warwick on Feb. 19.
Russo survived the deadly fire. Her memories are sketchy. She can remember every moment from that night leading up to the time she blacked out. Though told she was conscious, she cannot recall being pulled from the burning building. Her story is one of overcoming adversity, of triumph over tragedy.
Wrong place, wrong time
Russo shouldn’t have even been at The Station that night. She and her fiancé, Fred Crisostomi had planned to go to a movie, but ended up missing it. Crisostomi learned that a rock band was playing at the nightclub that night. Great White wasn’t her favorite, but Russo said that watching live music “was our thing,” so they decided to go there instead, purchasing tickets at the door around 10:30 p.m. It was only her third time at the club.
The couple moved close to the stage and when the pyrotechnics went off, Crisostomi, who had experience with pyrotechnics, knew it was wrong from the start. He moved quickly to escort Russo to a nearby exit, but it was the stage door where a bouncer refused to allow concertgoers to exit. Crisostomi didn’t bother wasting time arguing. By then, the fire had taken off.

“We tried to make our way to the front door, but that’s when the rest of the crowd realized, ‘oh, something’s wrong.’ Life changed,” Russo said in an interview with Rhode Island Catholic.
She recalls Crisostomi pushing her toward the front door before she lost sight of him. She recalls looking back and seeing the ceiling melting, people with their heads on fire. She recalls thinking she was going to die, asking her children for forgiveness, and praying “for God to watch over my children.”
Miraculously, though, she lived. She has no idea who pulled her – of all those desperately trying to escape – out of the club.
“To the end of time, I will ask that question – how did I get lucky? I remember standing in that doorway” with breath growing shorter, thinking she would die.
But Russo is a true survivor. She had already escaped from an abusive marriage and knew she had the ability to rise above her physical wounds and numerous operations. Her young sons needed her; they were her motivation to keep going.
“These two boys … had to see that this wasn’t the rest of my life, and my life wasn’t going to be tragic, and I was never not going to work again. And I had to raise these two little boys to become men,” Russo said.
Additionally, the love of family and friends, the support of doctors who saved her life – whom she now calls friends – boosted her recovery. Russo knows that some survivors did not fare as well as she, and she credits her support system for this.
It took three years for her to heal physically, though her mental and spiritual healing took longer. “I was very angry for a while; I will be very honest. God was going to have a lot of explaining to do.”
Though she had her Catholic faith to lean on, there was still plenty of room in her heart to question. It was nearly 15 years later – when the memorial park opened on the site of the tragic fire – that she considered herself fully healed. She said that “something lifted” that day. It was “also the moment when I decided to let the hate go, of the people who caused it — that’s such a powerful word, ‘hate’, but that’s what it was for me.”
In honoring the 100 who perished that night, she found freedom and the ability to let go of the survivor’s guilt that had haunted her for years. Through prayer, she realized her anger only hurt her and not those she blamed, and she gave it over to God.
Russo lost her fiancé that night, only learning about Crisostomi’s death after she awakened from an 11-week medically induced coma. But he had made a tremendous impact in the short time he was part of her life, and she speculates that God brought them together at that time for a specific purpose.
“Was Fred’s role in my life to show me that women should be treated with respect, that we’re put up on a higher pedestal? I don’t know; he did his job well because I will accept nothing less. My children are incredible men, so for the time he was in our life, the boys learned a lot from him. It wasn’t long, he was in our life for nine months, but he made quite an impact on my family, on me,” she said.
To memorialize those whose lives were cut short, including Crisostomi, Russo lives with joy, believing that “it’s a dishonor to not live well or as best as I can.” She tells people that: “whatever you believe in, I go to bed at night saying ‘thank you’ and I wake up saying ‘thank you.’ Because I was given this opportunity and I’m not gonna blow it. I refuse to.”
Rising above the trauma also spurred Russo to give back to others in similar circumstances. Through the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors’ SOAR (Survivors Offering Assistance and Recovery) program, she counsels other fire survivors, helping them through the same pain she experienced. She has developed friendships with family members of The Station victims and family members of victims of a similar fire in Brazil.
“If I was this blessed, I have to give back,” she said.
Russo is shocked by how many people she has met who had planned to attend the concert, yet unforeseen circumstances prevented them from going. Many have kept their tickets, some still in mint condition, as almost a kind of talisman – a reminder of what could have happened.
Remembering the victims is crucial for both families and survivors. “February’s a really tough month,” Russo concedes, and the members of The Station Fire Memorial Foundation wanted to find a way to honor the anniversary, even in the face of unpredictable Rhode Island weather.
That is where Father Robert Marciano came in. When Russo reached out to him, the pastor offered to hold a Mass at St. Kevin Church in Warwick. The event is called “Keeping our promise … We will never forget!” In the presence of Coadjutor Bishop Richard G. Henning, Father Marciano will be the principal celebrant and homilist. Special guests will include former R.I. Governor Donald Carcieri as well as survivors like Russo, family members and first responders.
In his role as a fire department chaplain, Father Marciano was called to The Station that night; he witnessed the gruesome scene firsthand. He heard the haunting sounds of sirens going off, and saw the bodies piled up at the front exit.
“I pulled up and it was this inferno, people coming out on fire or hurt. We just didn’t know the magnitude, then we finally found out,” Father Marciano said.
For all the terrible tales he could tell of that night, there were other stories of heroism, a point he wants to emphasize with the Mass of Remembrance.
“Our first responders were so heroic. With no regard for their own safety, they were hurrying to get to this building, trying to save people,” he said, noting that some of those rescue workers never mentally recovered.
Father Marciano praised the citizens of the small, blue-collar town, saying, “people’s resilience and help coming forward was overwhelming. And the state rallied around the families and the victims.”
It is hard for most people to understand the devastating toll the fire took on survivors, first responders and chaplains, Russo said. Even Father Marciano avoided driving down Kulas Road for years.
“It’s not easy, it’s still painful for everybody, but we can’t let this go by without remembering those who were lost and honoring those who served, and also reaching out to the families who have been devastated by this,” he said.
“But like I said, great tragedy, greater heroes.”
The Mass of Remembrance will take place at St. Kevin Church in Warwick on Feb. 19 at 10 a.m., with a reception in the Father O’Hara Hall afterward.