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Interview With Fire Witness

Aired February 21, 2003 - 10:15   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, we're joined on the telephone by someone who was perilously close to this fire as it burned this morning. Harold Panciera is joining us on the phone now, and as I understand it, Harold, you were at the club last night when this broke out?

HARRIS: Tell us about what happened.

PANCIERA: What happened was I attended the function with three other friends of mine, and the band came on about 11:00 p.m. They went into their first song, and the backstage started on fire. It instantly grew into a massive inferno. It was black billowing smoke that engulfed the building. The lights went out. No one could see. People were scrambling. It was (ph) complete and total chaos and pandemonium to get out of the building. I, myself, was fortunately enough to get out of the building with two of my friends. One of my friends was missing throughout the evening.



HARRIS: Excuse me? Hello? I'm sorry -- I'm sorry, Harold, for that interruption. Go ahead.

PANCIERA: One of my friends, who was missing throughout the evening, fortunately enough was found in Rhode Island Hospital, which was good.

HARRIS: Do you know anything about his condition?

PANCIERA: I don't. I don't think that he's in critical condition. I hope that he's not. There was so much chaos and pandemonium. It was really -- it was unbelievable. When I actually got out of the building, I knew because I was close to the exit that there were more people that were, you know, that were stuck in that blaze, and I could hear people screaming. I turned around and tried to get back in. I couldn't do it. I couldn't get back in, so I started to yell in through a doorway where smoke was just billowing out of the building.

HARRIS: Why couldn't you get back in, Harold? Was it the fire? Was it the smoke?

PANCIERA: The smoke and the fire. The smoke was a very heavy, black, thick, toxic smoke that you just could not breathe. You could not breathe.

HARRIS: Any idea how many people were in there at the time when the fire broke out?

PANCIERA: There was well over 200 people.

HARRIS: You think there were over 200 people?

PANCIERA: Absolutely. It was well over 200 people.

HARRIS: And you say you were pretty close to the door. Do you know how many doors there were? As I understand, there was more than one exit out of here.

PANCIERA: There was four exits in the building.

HARRIS: And were all of them pretty much looking the same way with smoke coming out of them and people stacked up?

PANCIERA: Yes, they were, sir. The building was completely engulfed in flames and thick black smoke that you could not see. There was a man -- when I went back to that side door, I couldn't get in there, but he was screaming to me that he was on fire and he couldn't get out. He couldn't walk. So I was -- I took snow and I started to throw snow in the door throughout the building and the man -- I said, can you feel the snow? He said, I can feel the snow. I said, Crawl towards the snow. And I was able to get to him. He was severely burned in his upper extremities. His hands, his face...

HARRIS: Did he get out?

PANCIERA: I did. I carried him out and I was able to get him some help. There were a lot of other people that were helping the injured, as well. But it was -- it was a sight to behold. It was really -- it was...

HARRIS: That's incredible. That's incredible. I can only imagine...

PANCIERA: Really a tragedy.

HARRIS: I can only imagine what was going through your head at the time when that was happening.

PANCIERA: It was -- I will tell you, when I went to that door and I yelled to see if anybody was in there, I could hear people screaming, but my mind had shut off, and that man started to yell at me, and I said, This is a joke. This just cannot be happening. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know how to get to him. So I thought just to grab snow and maybe throw snowballs in there. The guy would feel them, fortunately enough he did and he was able to get to the entrance where I could drag him out and carry him out.

HARRIS: Well, it's a good thing for him that you were there. How many people did you help like that, Harold? PANCIERA: That was the only person that I helped in that case, although I did try to -- I did try to help anyone that I could that was severely burned. There were people lying all over the parking lot that were just smoldering.

HARRIS: Can you guess how quickly the fire department got there, and how quickly help...

PANCIERA: The fire department -- I will tell you this. That fire department was there virtually instantaneously. I was actually astonished at how fast that they arrived on that scene. I commend the local fire department for responding in such expediency. It was really -- it was -- they're the real heroes right there that sacrificed -- would sacrifice their lives to go in there and try to rescue people that were dying. There was people dying in that building.

HARRIS: Yes, it seems like our firefighters have proven time and time again over the past few months that they are heroes, are they not? That's amazing.

PANCIERA: Time and time again.

HARRIS: As we are talking there, we are looking now at some of the live pictures of the building and what is left of it. Have you been by -- where are you at right now? Have you seen the building...

PANCIERA: I am actually at my -- I'm at my residence now. I was at the site until probably about 3:30 this morning, where the building had burned to the ground.

HARRIS: By 3:00, it was totally gone?


HARRIS: That is...

PANCIERA: The building had burned to the ground.

HARRIS: I have to did you this, Harold, because the first thing I thought of when I heard the story this morning, and I'm a long ways away from it. I couldn't see it, feel it, hear it, smell it, nothing like that. But the first thing that jumped in my mind was, My goodness. Didn't this just happen in Chicago? Didn't we just see a stampede situation in Chicago where people were crammed into a nightclub and couldn't get out. Did you think about that story at all?

PANCIERA: I did, as a matter of fact. You know, what is -- what's crazy about it is people were in awe of the fire for the first ten or 15 seconds. And then immediately after that, the building became engulfed in a thick, black smoke, and that's when pandemonium set in, and people started to scramble. People started to trip and fall and get trampled over, and people that were able to get out should thank their lucky stars because it was absolutely something that -- I was close to the exit, and I didn't think that I was going to make it out.

HARRIS: So you think that maybe that little bit of time when people sat and looked at the fire show -- fire thinking it was part of the show, that little bit of time, that minute or so, might have been the difference between life and death?

PANCIERA: To be honest with you, it wasn't even a minute. It happened so fast that people's cognitive thinking -- they couldn't -- you couldn't even imagine that something like that could catch fire and burn that quickly, and the smoke in that fire was -- the biggest problem of all because it was so thick. So black, and engulfed the entire building at such a high rate of speed that people -- they didn't know what to do. They panicked.

HARRIS: We're just now hearing word that the Associated Press now is saying that two more people have now died. The death -- actually, six more -- according to figures that we have there, saying now the death toll is standing at 60. That is absolutely...

PANCIERA: The death toll, actually, was at 54 momentarily ago, and...

HARRIS: Exactly.

PANCIERA: I believe that the death toll is rising.

HARRIS: That is absolutely astonishing. Harold Panciera, thank you very much for all you did there at that scene, and thank you for coming and sharing with us your story this morning, and we sure do wish you the best, and hope that somehow, some way that you can find a way to get over this. You and your friends, as well. We wish the best to your friend who is in the hospital, as well.


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