12 years ago today, 100 people died, and hundreds more were injured in a fire at the Station nightclub in West Warwick. The fire made national headlines as one of the worst nightclub fires in U.S. history. Survivors are still working to build a public memorial, and living with the scars from that night.
The young Rhode Island musicians of the band “Shyrne” were supposed to open for the 80’s rock band Great White at the Station nightclub on Friday, February 21, 2003. Shyrne’s front man Nick O’Neill went to check out the club with a friend the night before. He never made it out. He died in the fire sparked by pyrotechnics, shot off as part of Great White’s stage show. The fire spread rapidly, spurred on by a highly flammable sound-proofing material on the walls of the club. And at 18 O’Neill was the youngest victim of the fire. His parents still live in Rhode Island; on a quiet road in Johnston.
O’Neill’s father, Dave Kane’s home is bright and clean. An unfinished puzzle sits on the dining room table. In the living room family pictures rest on the mantle.
“My son is Nicholas O’Neil, we don’t do was in this house, we do is. That’s Nick over there on the left,” said Kane.
He motions to a picture of a young man, with shoulder-length blond hair and bright blue eyes. “Nicky is a writer, composer, a singer, an actor, a comedian.”
Kane said his son was working on getting his GED, when he died. Like so many musicians before him, he’d left school to pursue a career performing. “He was a rock and roller this kid. This is a boy who took four guitar lessons, and wrote fifty songs.”
Also a writer, Kane said his son wrote a play in the year before he died. In retrospect it seems an eerie foreshadowing of the tragedy to come. “He wrote a play called “They Walk Among Us.” The play is about teenagers who die and come back to earth.”
As they try to keep alive the memory of their own teenage son, Kane said he and his wife have found solace in signs and symbols, which they believe are messages from their son. “We have had incredible signs from Nicky, since the day after he passed, to let us know that nobody goes anywhere, that they’re here, that they love us, and that they’re safe.”
For Kane and his wife, these are deeply personal. But they, like many victims and their families, hope for a permanent physical memorial on the site of the fire. Kane said it would serve as a reminder to never let such an incident happen again. “So it’s more than just remembering the fire. It’s about what happens when people don’t do their jobs, and don’t protect us the ways they’re supposed to.”
Kane referenced the fire marshal and the club owners, who he blames for allowing too many people into the club. As the fire broke out, the crowd of more than 400 created a bottleneck at the entrance, trapping many inside. After the fire, new laws were passed to strengthen Rhode Island’s fire code. But that may provide little solace to those touched by the West Warwick tragedy.
Standing at the site of the fire nearly 12 years later, on a cold February day, snowdrifts pile against the chain-link fence that now surrounds the land. A large wooden cross extends from a blanket of untouched snow; one of the few reminders of the make-shift memorial that stood at the site for years. A group called the Station Fire Memorial Foundation is working to build a park commemorating victims, families, and the first responders who arrived in the middle of that February night.
And after more than a decade some progress is being made. After years of fighting with the property owner, the group has finally secured to the land, and initial plans have already been drawn up. But they still need to raise some $2 million. Nick O’Neill’s father, Dave Kane, said the longer it takes, the more likely for people will forget.
“If you go down and visit the site, and you get in your car and you leave, and you see it in your rearview mirror, the further away you get and the further away you get, it gets smaller and smaller until finally it disappears. The further we get from this fire. The further away we get from this fire, the further away we get from the lesson, the further away we get from the impact, or from giving a damn about it," said Kane.
But for Dave Kane and other survivors, the Station nightclub fire never feels far away. Many of the mementos they left behind at the site of the fire are packed away, waiting for the day they can be placed in a proper memorial.
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