Nine years; it seems like yesterday – The Station Fire

Before I even start writing, I want to apologize in advance for anyone I may offend or hurt. This is a deeply personal issue for many of us and of the thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of people who have a direct connection, no two of us may see it the same way. Therefore, the qualification before I go any further.

The night of February 20th, 2003 ended at 11:05 pm for me, just before the fire took place, after a trying day of enduring a surgical procedure that included preparation the day before that was humiliating and exhausting. Although, if not for having scheduled that colonoscopy weeks in advance, I too would have been in The Station that night as well. When asked to attend three weeks prior, my initial reaction was an immediate and enthusiastic, “Yes.” However, when I realized a few minutes later that I probably wouldn’t be feeling up to it that night, I begged off.

“No problem buddy, next time,” was the reply from my best friend, Mike Gonsalves. Most knew him as “Doc,” “The Doctor,” “Doctor Metal,” “Gonz.” or “Gonzo.” I’d known Mike pretty much my whole life though, played Little League with him, attended rival high schools but met up again at Rhode Island College, joined the same fraternity, lived together senior year and he was the best man at my wedding and the godfather of my oldest son. Therefore, I was one of the few who got to call him Mike. From the time when we lived together, he started calling me, “Dad,” and some our mutual friends continue to call me that in homage to Mike to this day.

The horror of The Station fire started for me at 5:15 am the next morning when I got a call telling me to, “Turn on the TV.” From there it only got worse, much worse. I won’t go into what transpired immediately thereafter, its too painful for too many people who knew Mike, especially his family members; not to mention all the others who were injured or lost loved ones.

Whereas Mike got to share in some of the most momentous times of my life, I got to write his obituary, deliver his eulogy and help administer a scholarship fund in his name. Not exactly what I thought I’d be doing for my 40-year old best friend at that point in my life. Neither did I think I would be helping to establish a foundation to erect a memorial at a site where 100 people died unnecessarily.

That’s exactly where I found myself though. Depressed, angry, wanting revenge is the best way to describe my emotions at the time; as well as ill-equipped to start a 501 (c)(3) non-profit. However, I was surrounded by good people; all in their own stage of grief but we tried to hold it together.

Trying to establish a lasting and meaningful memorial, there were several glaring truths that soon became apparent. The entire state was hurting, even months after the fire. There was no way a memorial was being built any time soon, the politicians and lawyers would see to that. There were two separate classes of those affected, survivors and those connected to the victims who died. And there was plenty of blame to go around, the facts that developed after the fire proved that.

From my position as president of the Station Fire Memorial Foundation, we were focused on the needs of the families and friends of those who died. We held public meetings to try and gauge the intentions of the constituency but the level of anger that came through colored everything we did. Even some of our board members couldn’t keep personalities out of the equation, myself included.

There was an us versus them mentality developing between the two camps and much of it had to do with the blame game. Many of the family members of the deceased laid the blame squarely at the feet of the band and the owners of the nightclub. However, it seemed like the bulk of the survivors were willing to overlook any culpability on the part of the band and were focused on the fire inspectors.

While I’m not going to get into that debate here, I know how it played with the families of the deceased. When the Station Family Fund continually defended the band and ended up agreeing to accept funds from a charity concert performed by Great White, it created a whole new wave of anger. My constituency saw SFF members flying out to meet the band for a show, as survivors wanting to live the “rock star” life, while their loved ones would never return.

Finally, it became too much for me. I helped host the first year memorial, something I now wish I hadn’t done. We continued to meet with families and we even had a few meetings with statewide political leaders. But again, it was obvious there was too much division on the part of all parties and just shy of a year after our first meeting to start the Station Fire Memorial Foundation, I took my leave of the group in favor of giving myself time to heal. Time that I wasn’t going to get if I continued on in that position.

Since then, there have been criminal prosecutions (not to my satisfaction), civil restitution (I can’t imagine anyone is satisfied with mere money and would rather have their lives back as they were); yet there is still no memorial to the victims. Here it is, nine years later and the site of the fire looks much the same as it did only months after the fire. How can that be?

I offer no solution, I only ask the question.

Again, I apologize if I offended or hurt anyone; that was not my intention. I was only trying to relive a time in my life that was extremely difficult, and give a somewhat objective view of what happened during that difficult time. I consciously took myself out of The Station fire community those many years ago to concentrate on raising funds and awarding them to students in the name of my best friend. I’m not looking to re-insert myself into any debates, I was just hoping to try and give a view through the prism of what happened at the time and how it affected so many of us.

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Field Director at the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, former editorial staff member at the Providence Journal. Master's candidate in Labor Relations at the University of Rhode Island.

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