March 2003

by Amy Bowers

"It was so fast"

"There's a club fire in Rhode Island. Can you go there for us?" A Cloud Fire, I mis-hear, when I answer the phone at 1:38AM. A toxic cloud over Rhode Island, and a fire. I'll fly in a charter plane to a chemical disaster? "Okay, sure. Can I call back in five minutes?" Black gold drips from my espresso maker. I'm awake now. It's not a cloud fire, it's a club fire. I'm not in the vast Southwest, it's 2AM in New Jersey, we can drive there.

First stop, Manhattan. West 77th Street is like a slushy village road, still uncleared from Monday's blizzard. Now we're two in the Subaru. One driving, the other nodded out for the only rest he'll get till 9 or 10PM Friday night.

"I knew right away, That's not right. It couldn't be right. My friend grabbed me. People were standing there looking like it was part of the show."

A group called Great White played at The Station, a small club in the town of West Warwick. Three minutes into their first number, the club was fully engulfed in flame.

people screaming get out
Running for the door,

Firefighters, rescue people, medical people went to work. Victims were triaged at the scene. The injured were moved to area hospitals, some airlifted to burn centers in Massachusetts.

The lights went out.
My arm got snapped.
I was knocked to the ground.

This is where I'm gonna die.

When the calls came in, Kent hospital activated their disaster plan. "Intensivists," as their ICU doctors are known, treated survivors for crushing injuries, lacerations, smoke inhalation, and 1st, 2nd and 3rd degree burns. "One solace," said trauma physician Michael Dacey, "everybody brought in lived."

At first light, there was nothing left of the club. The burned area became known at The Site. We did Live Shots from Kent Hospital, nearest the club fire, and shots from The Site.

It was a fire. Not a terrorist attack, not a biological attack, no cloud. We know how to cover this kind of disaster. We ask questions, we observe. We park dozens of satellite trucks, move them, and park again. We "stand in front of the camera and talk."

I don't hear anyone crack jokes about the club fire. Most of the crews and reporters had worked ground zero of the World Trade Center. I think it cured them of black humor.

Probably no one is really ready for tragedy, but American communities train for it. In West Warwick, relief workers, grief counselors and clergy quickly assembled to help victims.

"We're not a small state. We're just a big village," Msgr Plante told his parishoners at St John the Baptist Church in West Warwick.

In the big village, they give these directions:
"Take Route 2 to, do you know where the Filene's use to be?"
or: "Try Exit 12B and then ask directions, we're near St. Joseph's.

Smoke so thick I passed out.
Someone picked me up and put me through the window. It was an Ongoer.

"For those who died in the nightclub fire, we pray to the Lord. For area police and rescue personnel, we pray to the Lord."

I lost my friend.

Before I left Rhode Island, I said a quick goodbye to correspondents, crews and producers in our workspace. "You're shaking," I told a producer. "It's just low blood sugar," she assured me.

A normal phase of the job, till the next cloud fire.

DISCLAIMER: this dispatch reflects my own experience and my opinions, not those of my employer.

© Amy Bowers
Contributing Editor


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