For Many, Time Hasn't Healed Emotional Wounds From Nightclub Fire




WEST WARWICK, R.I. -- There have been birthdays missed and graduations unattended.

Little things, like family photos, serve as painful reminders of a nightclub fire that killed 100 people and left many more to struggle on without them.

There's anger of course -- expected to build as the holidays near -- that sons, daughters, wives and fathers died so unexpectedly when fire tore through The Station nightclub. That anger is manifesting itself in different ways as family members await word of criminal charges.

"There is a great deal of anger, there's no one to point a finger at, to say 'look what you did', or 'this is the cause,"' said Jeffrey Brusini, who supervises a resource center for fire victims and their families run by Family Services of Rhode Island. The anger, he said, has "always been there but we're starting to see more of it. We expect it will increase."

The Feb. 20 fire in West Warwick was sparked by a band's pyrotechnics, which set fire to flammable foam placed on the club's walls as soundproofing. Many of the dead and the 200 some injured became trapped when they rushed for the same exit as flames and thick black smoke consumed the building.

Some family members of victims are taking it upon themselves to assess blame. In September, a woman who lost her daughter vented her frustration by pulling two crosses dedicated to Great White guitarist Ty Longley from a makeshift memorial at the site of the blaze.

Warwick's Diane Mattera said she took Longley's crosses down because he "killed" her daughter, 29-year-old Tammy Mattera Housa, when his band set off the pyrotechnics.

"Ty's cross does not belong with my daughter's," Mattera told The Associated Press. "That's it, pure and simple." Crosses for Longley, who also died, have been replaced.

Others, like Leland Hoisington, who lost his daughter Abbie, internalize their anger. The Attleboro, Mass., math teacher, who lives in Cranston, returned to work within weeks of the fire. He quickly realized he wasn't ready and has been home since.

"You can't believe how much energy it takes" just to get out of the house some mornings, he said. "(I've) got to get up, take a shower, and I've got to shave ... you say 'I don't want to do anything."' Counseling hasn't helped though he hopes a return to work might, along with some movement in the criminal investigation.

"It would help me to see some progress," he said. "I'm very much afraid there will be some degree of legal minimizing of this entire thing."

Attorney General Patrick Lynch is hopeful a grand jury investigating the fire will decide whether or not there will be criminal charges by the end of this year, or early next.

"I certainly have seen ... the pain on their faces and the weight on their shoulders. It is miserable to see, and I can't imagine how bad it is to feel," Lynch said.

"The basic answers that these people want are not necessarily found in courts of law," Lynch said. "There are deeper lifelong issues that these families have to deal with. ... When people talk about closure, I'll never be able to provide that."

Others agree indictments probably won't help everyone. Michael Lichtenstein, vice president for the Kent Center, a Warwick-based mental health center working with survivors and victims' families, said it may be another year or more before some "start to turn the corner" and begin living as they did before the blaze.

Bonnie Hoisington, Leland's wife, isn't dwelling on holding someone accountable. She's more interested in getting a headstone for her daughter's grave. She's also pushing for a permanent memorial to the fire victims.

She's dreading the holidays without 28-year-old Abbie, who was a special-education teacher.

"Abbie was the one who did the baking and was enthusiastic about everything," Mrs. Hoisington said, tears filling her eyes.

Others, like survivor Arthur "Jamie" Conway, haven't begun dealing with emotional effects from the fire.

He lost his friend Shawn Sweet, 28, of Pembroke, Mass.

"I can't go to his grave, not yet, not yet," said Conway, of Abington, Mass. The 29-year-old piano player hasn't sought counseling, in part because he fears adding to the thousands of dollars in unpaid medical bills. He has no health insurance and suffered burns and other injuries that required a week's hospitalization.

He's eager for charges to be filed so the responsible parties "get what's coming to them."

But he gets through most days trying not to think about the fire.

"It's just life, you know?" he said.

Conway got some help with phone bills and other expenses from the victims' resource center. Brusini said the center still receives about a dozen calls a day, down from 25-30 in the first few months after the fire.

The center has used money from The Station Nightclub Fire Relief Fund, which has raised more than $3 million. Until recently the fund was focused on short-term needs, like buying food and paying for transportation to visit burn survivors. Now it's shifting focus to longer-term needs, like counseling.

Like many who escaped with their lives, 43-year-old Sharon Wilson struggles with survivor's guilt.

She and live-in boyfriend Robert Cripe went to the club with friend Bonnie Hamelin, who died.

"Bob got me out of the fire but should it have been her? I have that guilt, should I be alive?"

When the fire spread, Cripe was first out. He pulled Wilson from a pile of people stacked at the club's entrance.

He never found Bonnie.

"I thought she was in front of me," he said.

Cripe went back to work with a trucking company a week later. He says he's gotten over initial feelings of guilt, in part with the help of a weekly support group the couple attends.

He keeps some mementos from the fire on a desk at home. They include a magazine with a photo of him at the club's smoke-filled entrance, and three ticket stubs from the Great White show. The ticket stubs are in a clear holder, along with a crinkled $20 bill Wilson held in her hand while stuck in the pile of bodies at the club's entrance.

Wilson spoke proudly of how Cripe saved her and three or four others.

"Just not Bonnie," Cripe interrupted, staring at the magazine photo. (AP)