WEST WARWICK, R.I. -- Five years ago this week, patrons at The Station nightclub were enjoying the opening performance of a rock band.
That's when things went horribly wrong.
Pyrotechnics ignited the sound-proofing foam on the walls, causing the club to erupt into an inferno. Panic set in as the crowd scrambled in the dark, choking from the thick toxic smoke to find a way out.
Although there were other exits, many headed toward the door they entered. It was a deadly mistake for many.
In the end, 100 didn't make it out. More than 200 others were hurt in the fourth deadliest night club blaze in history. For many, the road to recovery is littered with challenges.
But, they are not alone. The Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors will be walking with them every step of the way.
Six months after the fire that claimed the life of his fiance Donna Mitchell and two other friends, Rob Feeney didn't care what happened to his life.
"I honestly didn't care how long I lived,"he says. "She [Mitchell] left behind two young daughters and I wanted to stick around to see them grow up, but that was about it."
Five years later, he still remembers the horrific night.
"There were five of us that went to the show,"says Rob Feeney, "myself, my fiance and my friends." He remembers the club was packed, "so crowded you couldn't blink." He remembers Great White taking to the stage, and he remembers the flames.
"They immediately went up the walls and into the ceiling."
Feeney and Mitchell became separated from their friends in the chaos that ensued. He saw that most of the crowd was going toward the main entrance, so he looked for another alternative out of the burning room. He said they tried to go through a door nearest the stage, but were turned away by a bouncer who said that door was for the band only.
Meanwhile, the fire was getting worse. "It was just a matter of seconds before the flames went right across the ceiling and engulfed the club," he says. "The power went out. At that point, if you were still alive you were crawling to find a way out."
Feeney and his fiance were among the crawlers, searching blindly for a wall in the smoky room.
"I crawled around till I could find a wall, found a hole and kicked the plywood out."
He climbed outside and turned to see if his fiance was behind him. However, she had lost consciousness while inside the club and never made it out.
All around him, firefighters tried to continue rescuing people despite the worsening conditions. "I saw firefighters going toward the front door, but other firefighters stopped them because of the flames," he says. "They couldn't rescue any more people.
He was lucky to be alive, but Feeney didn't make it out of the building unscathed. His shirt and his head were on fire. "I was smoldering," he remembers.
He remembers firefighters lifting him and taking him to triage -- coincidentally the restaurant near the club where he and his friends had eaten that night. There they put him into an ambulance so he could be treated.
Feeney says he never knew the names of the firefighters who helped him that night, although he tried to find them. He met other firefighters who were there that night -- in the burn unit where he received treatment and at the funeral of one of his friends who died that night -- but he never got to thank those two who saved his life.
"It's something I wish I could do," he says.
It's an understatement to say he was badly burned in the fire. He suffered deep third degree burns on both hands -- wounds that required doctors replacing every layer of skin. He said his left hand has a lot of skin and tendon damage. He suffered facial burns, sustained damage to his right ear on the inside and out and a burned cornea on his right eye. But today, thanks to the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors, he is in a happier, more positive place.
Shortly after the fire, he was one of 12 Station fire victims selected to go to the group's World Burn Congress in Cleveland. For Feeney, it was the beginning of a way up.
He said the group has been pivotal in his recovery from the Station fire. Through interaction with other people who have been through bad fires, who have sustained serious injury and who have lost loved ones, he says he has learned to move on.
"I learned that I wanted to live again. I wanted to find a way to once again have a life."
Joe Kinan had to find a way to live again after the nightclub fire, too.
Kinan lost an eye, both ears, all of his fingers and sustained 40 percent third- and fourth-degree burns all over his body. He also lost longtime girlfriend Carla Bagtz, who had accompanied him to the concert.
"I can tell you that I've come to terms with where I am now, but it's not 100 percent happiness," he says. "I'm happy that I can still spend time with my daughter and I'm extremely happy that I have a little bit of sight left. You figure out ways of getting things done but it comes with a lot of frustration...If you were to ask me if I'm happy to be alive, yes I am."
Kinan has endured over 100 surgeries since the 2003 fire. He said doctors have inserted titanium implants so that he could have prosthetic ears and they reconstructed a thumb on his right hand to help him grasp things. He's also had multiple skin grafts and surgeries to loosen scar tissue.
It has been a lot to endure, but Kinan says he's gotten through thanks to sheer willpower.
"I have a tenacious personality," he says. "I have a 17-year-old daughter, who was 13 at the time, and thinking of her helped me fight through. I didn't want her to be without her dad."
And Kinan has a special message for firefighters, too.
"We [burn survivors] are appreciative of the career that they have. That can never be expressed enough,"he says. "I experienced what it was like to be inside a burning building because of being trapped. They go in willfully and that's something of the highest honor."
Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors
Upon hearing about the Station Night Club fire, Phoenix Society members knew survivors would need their help. They headed to Rhode Island to get involved.
"They had a command post set up in an old dealership. We shared with officials what the Phoenix Society is. Survivors need long term support. It won't be over for them for a very long time," said Amy Acton, executive director.
They lectured medical officials about the after care resources available as well as about what they may encounter while dealing with burn survivors.
"We worked with mental health care providers and others to let them know the issues involved."
A number of survivors have been able to attend the annual burn congress. There, they learn from others that they still have a future.
"They may need job skills to get back to work. They learn about how to deal with stares. Many times people aren't being malicious, they're curious."
Survivors also share feelings on their relationships, and the emotional trauma involved. "They learn that it is possible to recover, renew and return."
Acton knows just how challenging the journey can be.
She suffered extensive burns when the mast of a boat she was pushing struck a power line. Acton knows all too well about the stares, the remarks.
But, she fought back to fulfill her dream to become a nurse.
She promises members of the Phoenix Society will be at survivors' for the long haul.
"Each day as I sit at my desk I am reminded of the incredible human loss that occurred on February 20, 2003 at the Station nightclub. Above my desk hangs a memorial gift from the survivors of the Rhode Island fire who attended World Burn Congress for the first time in late 2003. Framed and encased in glass is a Rhode Island State flag with 100 names of those who died in the Station Nightclub Fire listed below. The Rhode Island flag is an Anchor with the word HOPE nestled below.
Survivor Creates Rolling Tribute
Every day, Paul Bertolo realizes he's lucky to be alive. He and three friends were in the Station Nightclub enjoying the Great White performance when things took a deadly turn.
"We thought it was part of the show until the fire went up the walls. Then, we knew it wasn't," Bertolo said.
The Massachusetts resident spoke of the panic and chaos as patrons scrambled to get out. "It was pitch black. The thick smoke was toxic and choking..."
He was pushed by the crowd toward a door. In the panicked rush, a man suddenly shoved him back into the building.
"One guy picked up his girlfriend and threw her over the crowd. She made it out alive, but was burned over more than 70 percent of her body. He didn't make it, but doing that saved her..."
Bertolo dove through a window to escape the inferno. "I was in shock. I didn't feel any pain. I didn't even know right away that I was cut up."
Bertolo's friends also made it out.
But, 100 others didn't.
Bertolo was determined to do something to remember those perished in the deadly blaze.
He purchased a 1959 Chevrolet, and outfitted it as a fire chief's car. "That's been my goal all along. I wanted to have it done by the fifth anniversary. I finished it on Nov. 29, my birthday."
In addition to remembering the patrons who perished, Bertolo also wanted to promote fire safety and thank the firefighters who risked their lives to save others.
Gold leaf lettering on the door reads: RI Fire Survivor. The shield bears the date of the fire as well as the slogan: "Never Forget The 100 Lives Lost at the Station Night Club."
An open book painted on the trunk contains the names of 100 victims. It was unveiled this past weekend at the fifth anniversary service.
"There were lots of tears when people saw it. There were many reactions. Some hugged, some gave me thumbs up, others just looked. Their silence said it all."
During his 90 minute trip from his Massachusetts home to the ceremony, he received a lot of response from other motorists. In fact, the reaction started to concern him.
"People blew their horns. They gave me thumbs up, waved. But, I was worried because I didn't want it to be a distraction. People should be paying attention to traffic."
Bertolo is willing to share his rolling memorial for other functions. "I want people to remember how that night changed lives forever."
While he was sharing his thoughts, a segment about the Station Night Club anniversary appeared on TV. He turned up the volume.
"This is horrible. I can't believe they are showing that. They are showing the blaze. It's bringing back so many memories. I can imagine how others are feeling. Oh, this is bad."
Bertolo said sharing his experience and hearing from other burn survivors at the Phoenix Society's World Burn Congress has helped him move on. "The people are incredible. They open their hearts, and show other burn victims that life does go on."