When is a firefighter not a firefighter?
Steven Burgess thought he was a firefighter the night The Station nightclub burned to the ground. He went as a concertgoer, out on a date.
But as the fire consumed the club, the Cranston firefighter joined West Warwick's Fire Department, fire hose in hand, as they fought the blaze -- standing close enough that the heat burned his clothes and singed his eyebrows off.
The City of Cranston saw it differently. While he acted heroically and deserved praise, the city said, Burgess was no firefighter that night; he was a private citizen doing what he could to help.
Cranston denied his request for injured-on-duty status when he sought treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder stemming from the events of that night, Feb. 20, 2003.
Surprised, Burgess and the fire union appealed to an arbitrator, who agreed with the city last summer -- Burgess deserved praise, the arbitrator said, but not city coverage.
"It was kind of shocking. I thought you're here to serve and protect life and property, 24 hours a day," Burgess said of the result.
Now, Burgess said, something eats away at him. The next time, would he be so quick to jump in and help? Will other firefighters rush to throw themselves into danger when off-duty, knowing that their families will not be covered if something happens to them?
He says he would do the same thing again. But there is a tinge of doubt.
"There's a line there now, that you never understand why it's there -- you think, where did this come from? What happened?"
STEVEN BURGESS had seen fire before, but always from behind the relative safety of his firefighter's mask.
But when the flames shot up during the first moments of Great White's set, his blood turned to ice.
Burgess, now 36, was there to see a band from his youth, hang out with some friends he knew at the club. He had played there before as a member of the Newport-based rock band, Those Guys, and knew the layout and the staff well. He'd been around the club before in a professional capacity as well, having spent 1996 to 2000 as a West Warwick firefighter before joining Cranston.
Within 20 seconds of the fire starting, he knew the flames were more than a fire extinguisher could handle. He told a bartender friend of his to leave immediately, and then turned to his date.
"You're not going to believe what you're going to see. I want you to get out of here," he told her.
He led her into the club's kitchen, and opened a side door out just as the crowd at large began to realize that something had gone horribly wrong, and began streaming toward the front door.
Burgess told his date to go across the street, and headed back to the kitchen door. He opened it, thinking to lead others out that way. He was immediately overcome by smoke, and pulled back.
"If I went back in, I knew I wasn't coming out," he said.
He ran along the burning building to the front entrance, where he joined several others in dragging survivors through the club's broken windows. Burgess sliced up his hands and arms on the glass.
Moments later, the first West Warwick fire truck arrived.
Burgess ran up to the truck. He saw a friend, Lt. Roger St. Jean, from his days in West Warwick.
"There's 100 people trapped up against that door," Burgess said he told St. Jean.
St. Jean looked over the situation, and then told Burgess to "grab a line" for himself and another firefighter, and keep water on the door to keep it cool.
That "order," the union later said, transformed Burgess from a private citizen to a firefighter doing his job.
He ran to the West Warwick truck, unfurled a hose line, and began shooting water onto the building's front door.
Burgess stood 15 feet from the fire and held his line. "It was amazing how hot that was," he said, having never been so close before without his gear on.
Soon the truck ran out of water. As more firefighters arrived on-scene, Burgess ran to secure other water sources and pump water to the front lines.
As better-equipped firefighters -- including a contingent from Cranston -- arrived by the truckload, he found a West Warwick battalion chief, and told him that he was going to go look for his date.
He wandered for close to an hour, until he found her across the street at the Cowesett Inn, tending to burn victims. Medical personnel wanted to keep him at the inn because of his cuts and heat exposure, but he persuaded a firefighter at one of the back doors to let him leave. Steven Burgess went home.
THE ISSUE of where the line between on-duty and off-duty falls is not new; firefighters generally know that if they help a person on the side of the road, any injuries they incur will not be covered.
But Burgess' case is different, his union said. The scope of the disaster aside, Burgess joined a firefighting operation in progress, and was ordered to "grab a line" by a West Warwick fire officer.
"You cannot neglect a fire officer's order to help," said Paul Valletta, president of Local 1363 of the International Association of Firefighters in Cranston. During Burgess' arbitration, Valletta cited several provisions of state law that he said meant Burgess could have faced prosecution if he had not helped when asked.
Chief Robert Warren of Cranston said he would have been "disappointed" had Burgess not helped, and Chief Charles D. Hall of West Warwick, said that if he had learned that Burgess had been there and not joined the firefighting, he would have taken him to task.
"In our profession, there's an unspoken duty to perform. Refusal to act, to me, is almost a chargeable offense. If he had not assisted? I think I would have had something to say about it," Hall said.
Burgess said he knows this ethos well. If he hadn't helped, his fellow firefighters in Cranston would never have looked at him the same way.
"I would have been alienated. My next 20 years would have been real tough."
But helping took its toll.
IT WAS the morning after the fire, and Burgess had not slept. He sat in his chair, the television on, as the phone calls started to trickle in.
He had the day off, and he spent it in that one spot, He sat and stared at the television for 24 hours straight, ignoring the phone and the messsages that flooded his answering machine as concerned friends and family called to check on him.
He was rattled -- shocked, he said. The idea of seeing a fire truck made him nauseous.
He took one day off, to clear his head, and was told by the Fire Department that he would be placed on injured-on-duty status. He took the day, and then returned to work.
"I kind of forced myself to come back. I almost threw up on the way there," he said.
He tried to bury himself in the job. But as the months went on, the images of the inside of that club never went away.
"I had a problem every time I got in the shower. I kept trying to wash it off. It wouldn't come off," he said.
He went to counseling, and to his family doctor, where he was prescribed antidepressant medication. He was curious, however, as to why he had to pay his copays for the doctor visits and the medication. Wasn't he on injured-on-duty? Doesn't the city pick up those costs?
It was then that Burgess learned that the city had denied his claim.
"I didn't understand. I had assumed everything was taken care of," he said.
PAUL G. GRIMES, director of administration for Mayor Stephen P. Laffey, said that he was impressed by Burgess' actions, but after consulting with the city's labor lawyers, believed that giving Burgess injured-on-duty status would be a precedent-setting blurring of the line between on- and-off duty.
"It was very clear that the right thing to do was to keep that line of off-duty in place," Grimes said. Just because the incident was the famous Station nightclub fire and not an injury incurred assisting a stranded motorist is no reason to respond differently.
"It's a very emotional subject. It's emotional for everybody in the state of Rhode Island. But that shouldn't color our decision," he said.
"Maybe it makes us the bogeyman -- but I think reasonable people understand."
Additionally, Grimes said that the union's argument that he was ordered to assist is specious. A West Warwick lieutenant has no jurisdiction over a Cranston firefighter.
Then the negotiations began. The union and the Laffey administration have notoriously bad relations, but Valletta said that "with all the fights I've had with this administration, it never crossed my mind that they would deny it."
"They should have been giving this kid commendations, and instead they turned their back on him," he said.
Valletta said he understood the administration's argument that it feared setting a precedent. But the city can make exceptions when it chooses; in 1983, Cranston paid the funeral expenses of a firefighter who was killed responding to an accident on his way to work.
Valletta offered to sign a letter saying that if the city gave Burgess injured-on-duty status, it would not set any sort of legal or anecdotal precedent. Grimes refused, saying the letter was a smokescreen.
"Does it really not set a precedent? It's almost like a dance. Of course,it sets a precedent," Grimes said.
"If we would have granted him injured-on-duty status, boy, that be a tough one to prove against if he goes for a disability pension," he said.
Burgess vehemently denies that he would ever want a pension -- he said it was hard enough for him to swallow his pride and ask his doctor about a potential stress disorder, and to talk to reporters now.
The union filed a grievance against the city, and took the issue to arbitration. The arbitrator said that he sympathized with Burgess, but last summer denied the union's position. The city's contract with its union, arbitrator Lawrence Katz wrote, defines the line between on- and off-duty -- clearly.