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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Nightclub Fire Death Toll Continues to Rise

Aired February 21, 2003 - 09:09   ET

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

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Jason Carroll standing by live at the scene at West Warwick, Rhode Island with the very latest.
What else have you learned, Jason? Good morning.

JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, at this point, Paula, that crane we had talked about earlier this morning has, in fact, been brought in. That crane is going to be used to lift the heavy debris from the area that used to be the stage, then the dance floor. Officials out here believe there are a number of bodies that are buried beneath the debris in that particular area, and so they're going to be using that crane to lift the debris so they can continue to remove the bodies from the scene here.

In the meantime, joining me right now is Wolfgang Bauer. He is the town manager. He has an update in terms of some numbers for us. I know the last count we had was 39 confirmed fatalities. You have an update for us?

WOLFGANG BAUER, WEST WARWICK TOWN MGR.: Well, I don't have an official update from that, but we also counted 15 additional bodies in the building that we hadn't taken out, so I think we're closer to 54. I'm afraid there may be additional ones and I'm concerned about 164 people, some of them with severe burns going to the hospitals, and what happens there. So I'm very pessimistic as far as the number being the final number.

CARROLL: It's really disheartening. Earlier this morning, when he thought the number was in the 20s and each hour, the number keeps going up.

BAUER: Started with nine.

CARROLL: Started with nine.

Also, in terms of talking to some of the eyewitnesses, they were talking about the fact that there were exits here, four exits, but as we were talking earlier, you said that a lot of many of people just did instinctively what they knew, which was to head for the exit they came -- the way they came in is the way they tried to go out.

BAUER: We really don't know whether the exit signs are supposed to be on a different circuit, whether all of the power went out of the building at some point, how dark it was in there, how bad the smoke was. And so it looks like we had concentration people heading for the same exit, and not that there was a problem building code wise where the exit, just too many people for the width of the exit, and I think that's part of the indication of having a number of people almost near the door.

CARROLL: But from what you're saying to me, it sounds like when the power went out, it's unclear at this point if the power also went out on the exit signs that should have probably been illuminated?

BAUER: That may have been the point, except if it was dense smoke, you wouldn't have seen it anyhow. So It's hard to tell, and we'll just have to see how much information we gather from people who came out.

CARROLL: I just want to be clear, at last report, we had 39, but with the additional bodies you're talking about, now 54?

BAUER: I think we're in the mid 50s.

CARROLL: In the mid 50s.

Again, you're expecting the number to rise even from there?

BAUER: I'm not confident that that is the final total.

CARROLL: Give us a sense of the procedure that's taking place out here right now. We know that the crane has been brought in. You told me that. That will be used to lift the debris. It is thought that there are more bodies in the area of what used to be the dance floor near the stage?

BAUER: That's the question I've heard. Some additional bodies in the bathroom or bathrooms. Somebody told me there was actually cell phone calls out of the bathroom, saying we can't get out. So we'll just have to kind of see where we end up with that. I'm just -- I'm hopeful, but I'm not confident, we've seen the last of the numbers.

CARROLL: That's got to be so horrific to hear news like that, the fact you're getting calls from people who are trying to get out and could not get out.

BAUER: And then the other thing is that not only have we got the tragedy here in West Warwick, but I think when we finally get sifting through the names and so on, we're going to find many of West Warwick residents that are part of the death toll.

CARROLL: It's got to be incredibly difficult to do that, because when you sign up at a club like this, it's not you sign your name on sort of a list, you simply show up with a ticket. So how difficult is that going to be?

BAUER: Well, as you can see, there's some cars parked here. We've removed others. We're now looking for empty cars and trying to match names, owners, and with our lists and our hospitalizations and relatives called missing people, that's all going on at the Crown Plaza Hotel over in Warwick. So it's going to take a while to get through this.

CARROLL: A lengthy process, to be sure. Wolfgang Bauer, town manager, thank you. We appreciate that update.

BAUER: Thank you.

CARROLL: So, again, Paula, the numbers have been going up all morning long, and, now, it appears as if the number of 39, which was the last official number that we got, has now gone up to at least the mid 50s. Fifty-four is the number here that Wolfgang Bauer was telling us a little earlier.

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