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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Huge Nightclub Fire in West Warwick, Rhode Island

Aired February 21, 2003 - 05:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: You know, we're really busy covering this nightclub fire. I'm sure you're aware of that. If you're just getting up, there was a huge nightclub fire in West Warwick, Rhode Island. Police are right now trying to determine how many people were killed. They believe at least 10 died trying to get out of that club. The fire started from a pyrotechnic display put on by the band Great White. You know the band Great White, the great '80s heavy metal band? They sang that song "Once Bitten, Twice Shy."
Well, they had a pyrotechnics display behind them and it somehow ignited the curtains and the ceiling of the club. The fire spread very quickly.

A photographer from CNN affiliate WPRI happened to be in the club. He was doing a feature story and he was there when the fire broke out.

Listen to what he has to say.

BRIAN BUTLER, WPRI PHOTOGRAPHER: It was that fast. As soon as the pyrotechnics stopped, the flame had started on the egg crate backing behind the stage. And it just went up the ceiling and people stood and watched it. And some people backed off. When I turned around, some people were already trying to leave. And others were just sitting there going, "Yes, that's great!" And I remember that statement because I was like this is not great. This is time to leave.

At first there was no panic. Everybody just kind of turned. Most people still just stood there. In the other rooms, the smoke hadn't gotten to them, the flame wasn't that bad, they didn't think anything of it. Well, I guess once we all started to turn toward the door and we got bottlenecked into the front door, people just kept pushing and eventually everyone popped out of the door, including myself. That's when I turned back.

I went around back. There was no one coming out the back door anymore. I kicked out a side window to try to get people out of there. One guy did crawl out. I went back around the front again and that's when you saw people stacked on top of each other, trying to get out of the front door. And by then the black smoke was pouring out over their heads.

I noticed when the pyros stopped, the flame had kept going on both sides. And the on one side I noticed it come over the top and that's when I said I have to leave. And I turned around and I said, "Get out! Get out! Get to the door! Get to the door!" and people just stood there. There was a table in the way at the door and I pulled that out just to get it out of the way so people could get out easier. And I never expected it to take off as fast as it did. It just, it was so fast. It had to be two minutes tops before the whole place was black smoke.

COSTELLO: Well, he is exactly right about that. In one minute, the curtain behind the band totally engulfed in flames, as was the ceiling. Right now you're looking at a photograph of Great White. This was taken from the band's Web site. Guitarist Mark Kendall -- you see him right there -- he is unaccounted for at this time, as is a local DJ who introduced the band. At least 10 people are reported dead. At least 16 others, actually, 165 others were taken to area hospitals. We understand at least 60 are in critical condition this morning.

Now, authorities say many of the dead are still inside of what remains of that nightclub called The Station. Very little is left of the building this morning. In three minutes, it was pretty much engulfed in flames and it was gone. One woman who was near the stage with her sister described how the fire started.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was the very, the very first song, the very beginning of the first song. I believe it was a, like a, sort of like a spark machine to, kind of like a pyrotechnics machine. And it shot off to do like sort of a fire cracker like image type thing. But it caught fire onto the foam padding that lines the walls, mainly, I guess, in back of the stage. And it caught fire and it just took very quickly. And my sister and I were at the front of the stage and as soon as I saw it going up, the foam padding, I grabbed her and we went right out the back.

I haven't been injured. I've been trying to help people. My sister and I are fine. We came out totally unscathed. I don't know, by some godly miracle, and this is the worst trauma and just unspeakable thing that...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You're in a state of shock.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. I mean I feel like I just want to cry and cry and cry and scream.

My sister and I got right out and as I'm helping people and hearing stories, I think there was a trampling, you know, a panic, screaming, trampling. That's how I've been sort of hearing it for some of the injured. And there are some people here that are really badly hurt, burns, the blood and from what I gather in just passing with some people, that I think maybe some people have, have expired.

COSTELLO: OK, we're going to take you live back to the scene now. We're going to dip into WPRI's coverage of this event. They're broadcasting out of Providence, Rhode Island. We're going to wait for a few minutes till they get back to the pictures.

These are phone numbers that family members can call to get more information. Because about more than 300 people were inside the nightclub, the station, at the time the fire broke out, many are in area hospitals, and, of course, haven't gotten the chance to call their loved ones yet.

Let me explain a little bit more about the pyrotechnics behind the band. They were sort of like giant sparklers, you know, that kids use on the Fourth of July. And at certain points in the pyrotechnics show, they shoot out higher. And the sparks flew up and ignited the ceiling and the curtain behind the band.

Let's step into WPRI's coverage right now to listen to what this reporter has to say.

MARK ZINNI, WPRI CORRESPONDENT: At this point, no one will confirm here at the hospital if anyone inside has died after they were brought here. They will just say that about 30 people are in intensive care. At least four people were taken to Boston area hospitals and right now they just continue to evaluate exactly where things are going to go from here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right, that's Mark Zinni reporting, thank you, Mark, from Rhode Island Hospital.

Some of the answers are going to come about as a result of some stunning videotape that was taken from the inside. As Pam was saying before, you know, Pam, you captured it well. You said, you know, this doesn't normally happen. It happens somewhere else, when we're covering America and we take you around the world in a minute.

But in Rhode Island, you know, we don't have, we are not the sites of these horrific tragedies. And when something happened in Chicago four days ago, you know, 50 people injured, 21 people trampled to death at a disco, we're in our newsroom and we're talking about that and caring about it and wondering gee, you know, could we ever suffer a similar problem in Rhode Island?

And that was the genesis for a special assignment that sent Brian Butler out to this particular nightclub on this particular night. And quite honestly, in full disclosure, that club is owned by one of our colleagues, Jeff Dedarian (ph) and his family. And the reason that that nightclub was chosen was in part, a matter of convenience, but also because this was going to be a good example of a place where...

PAM: Of a place up to code...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... there are plenty of exits. The fire codes are obeyed. The liquor license is up to snuff. And Brian happened to be inside when this fire began.

PAM: An incredible irony because it was the impetus for the story, was this recent news event, and that's oftentimes where we get some of our stories. We take a national event and then look at it locally to see could this happen here and do this (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do an examination of how are we doing.

PAM: And an incredible irony because then, therefore, we were inside at what Eyewitness News Reporter Walt Buteau said is some rare and stunning video. You very seldom see a tragedy like this unfold before your very eyes and on videotape, and we do, indeed, have those pictures from inside this devastation at The Station, which is the nightclub in West Warwick owned by our colleague Jeff Dedarian, co- owned with his family.

And, Walt, you've been there throughout the night.

Give us the latest that you have from the scene.

WALT BUTEAU, WPRI CORRESPONDENT: Well, we are waiting for hard numbers as far as casualties and as far as fatalities. Again, we hear 10 fatalities, more than 100 people injured and recovering, a lot of those people in critical condition with burns, obviously, and cuts.

Again, yes, a rare look inside a fire because when you think about it, a lot of times it's an investigation, it's a puzzle. They have to go to the scene of a fire, go inside, try to figure out what happened.

But as you look at this video, a person raising the beer in the foreground, we see the fire start right there. We can see it started near the pyrotechnics. Does that mean that's the exact cause, according to the fire marshal? Not yet. They'll investigate it. But obviously they can see in there exactly what happened and now, of course, the question will be was there a permit to have this type of a pyrotechnic display on the stage? And if there was a permit, should there have been a permit? Those are questions we'll answer down the road.

Meanwhile, the man who shot this video, he was inside. Right now at this point he's trying to get out. That's Brian Butler holding the camera, focusing the lens, and he has quite a story about what it was like inside.

Quite frankly, as you said to me, you're lucky to be alive.

BRIAN BUTLER, WPRI PHOTOGRAPHER: It was, it was that fast. As soon as the pyrotechnics stopped, the flame had started on the egg crate backing behind the stage and it just went up the ceiling. And people stood and watched it. And some people backed off. When I turned around, some people were already trying to leave and others were just sitting there going, "Yes, that's great!" And I remember that statement because I was like this is not great. This is time to leave.

BUTEAU: They thought it was part of the show?

BUTLER: They did, obviously. There was no way to stop the fire once it started. No one had water. There was, the crowd was at least 10 or 12 deep from where I was...

BUTEAU: How many in the bar at that time?

BUTLER: I couldn't guess, but maybe 150, 200, whatever. I'm not sure.

BUTEAU: Inside that bar, 150 people plus the band and the crew? BUTLER: Yes.

BUTEAU: And at that point, getting out, how did you get out and were people literally trampled as they got out?

BUTLER: At first there was no panic. Everybody just kind of turned. Most people still just stood there. In the other rooms, the smoke hadn't gotten to them, the flame wasn't that bad, they didn't think anything of it. Well, I guess once we all started to turn toward the door and we got bottlenecked into the front door, people just kept pushing and eventually everyone popped out of the door, including myself.

That's when I turned back. I went around back. There was no one coming out the back door anymore. I kicked out a side window to try to get people out of there. One guy did crawl out. I went back around the front again and that's when you saw people stacked on top of each other trying to get out of the front door. And by then the black smoke was pouring out over their heads, out the side windows on the other side.

BUTEAU: (AUDIO GAP) It was really an amazing thing to live through, not just for Brian Butler, but also for anyone who did survive. Obviously, some people did not survive and, again, a sad part of the morning for many families is they may not know where their loved ones are. I know we have some phone numbers where they can call and see if, indeed, their loved one was here last night or is among the casualties. And that's going to be a big part of the morning, is determining how many and who.

Live in West Warwick, Walt Buteau, Eyewitness News.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right, a fine report. Walt Buteau has, of course, been on scene since about 11:20 this evening.

Here are some numbers for concerned friends, neighbors, family members. If you had a friend go out last night, they were going to go out to a club and you don't know where they are this morning, these are some numbers you can call. 401-823-3326. That's in West Warwick. That's a West Warwick information line. The Rhode Island Hospital victims family hotline is at 401-444-4005. And the state emergency management agency, which is starting to try to coordinate all of this information, might be your first best bet to call, 401-462-7111.

PAM: May I add to the list that some 50 victims or so are at Kent Hospital in Warwick and they have a number, as well, that's been set up. That's 737-7000. And then you want to punch in extension 1397. Also, there's a family center that's been opened in the lobby of the Hasbro Children's Hospital. You can go there to get some support and some help if you're looking to find someone or to get some information that's vital.

We want to take you to a map of the scene right now so you know exactly where all of this has unfolded overnight. A very familiar place for many Rhode Islanders, Coicet Avenue (ph). It's where the Coicet Inn Restaurant is, Evelyn's Restaurant and The Station right across from the Coicet Inn just, and a little bit catty corner to it. It's called The Station and aptly named because it is co-owned by one of our colleagues, Jeff Dedarian, and his family, and, who happened to be there at this nightclub that very moment that the fire broke out.

COSTELLO: OK, we're going to dip away from our affiliate, WPRI in Providence, Rhode Island now, update you about that nightclub fire once again in West Warwick, Rhode Island. We understand that the latest number, 24 dead in that nightclub fire. More than 165 injured and scattered in area hospitals in Rhode Island and in the Boston area.

We're going to take a break. We'll come right back with more on this nightclub fire and our breaking news this morning.

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