5 years after nightclub fire, survivors reflect on how their lives changed after tragedy

A memorial to Station Nightclub fire victim Judith Dalton Manzo, front, stands Feb. 8 at the location of the 2003 fire in West Warwick, R.I. A large circle of memorials marks the spot where five years ago the nightclub was destroyed in a blaze resulting in the death of 100 people.

? Gina Russo’s head was seared down to the skull, her body pocked by third-degree burns, her future consumed by painful skin grafts and guilt over having survived The Station nightclub fire when her fiance had not.

“I remember people would come to visit, and then when everybody was gone thinking, ‘How am I going to do this? Why was I kept alive?”‘ Russo said.

Five years ago Wednesday, fire tore through the club in West Warwick, killing 100 people and injuring more than twice that many. The blaze began when pyrotechnics used by the band Great White ignited flammable soundproofing foam that covered the walls and ceilings.

Survivors live with disfigurement, depression and steep medical bills, and victims’ relatives endure flashes of bitter anger and loneliness.

However, they also have found ways to cope.

James Gahan has set up scholarships for youth sports programs in the name of his son, Jimmy, one of those who died, and has worked for stricter fire codes. Bonnie Hoisington still tears up when she hears “One Particular Harbour,” a Jimmy Buffett song that reminds her of her daughter, Abbie, but she finds comfort in her new grandchild, born to another daughter after Abbie died.

Russo says she is determined not to let the memory of that night and the loss of her fiance, Alfred Crisostomi, dominate her thoughts.

Russo was placed in a medically induced coma because she had third-degree burns on 40 percent of her body, and she didn’t wake up until 11 weeks after the fire. She remembers the pyrotechnics and seeing the ceiling melting, smoke, heads on fire. Crisostomi put his hand on her back and pushed her forward, yelling “Go!”, and she never saw him again. He died from inhaling toxic fumes.

After she woke up, she needed help standing, bathing and tying her shoes. She has scars up and down her arms and wears an auburn-colored wig in public.

During her arduous rehabilitation, Russo drew motivation from the need to care for her young sons, and from her faith that Crisostomi would have prodded her to recover. Even so, as each anniversary awakens painful memories, her normally bright demeanor turns somber and her family knows that’s the time to give her space.

She and others feel let down by the justice system.

A grand jury indicted club owners Jeffrey and Michael Derderian and former Great White tour manager Daniel Biechele, though many victims believed members of the band and the local fire inspector also were culpable. All three reached plea deals, and Biechele and Michael Derderian were sent to prison in 2006. Biechele is scheduled to be released on parole next month, and Derderian in 2009. Jeffrey Derderian was spared jail time and ordered to perform community service.

Great White lost a guitarist in the fire and played benefit concerts for survivors in the months afterward. It’s now touring in Europe with its original members.

Russo was one of hundreds of survivors and victims’ relatives who filed lawsuits. So far, they’ve reached tentative settlements totaling more than $70 million.

But she says she’d rather stay productive than dwell on the past. She’s found a new job handling insurance claims for children undergoing physical therapy, though her priorities have changed since the fire. Once obsessed with work, she now clocks out at 4:30 sharp so that she can get home to her sons.

“I’m not like that anymore,” she said. “My family, my friends are the most important thing to me.”

In 2006, Russo met a man named Steve through a mutual friend. She was self-conscious about her wig and her burns – she sometimes wears a bandanna in public because it’s more comfortable, but people think she has cancer – so she decided to give him an easy out. She explained by e-mail that she had no hair, and offered to let him walk away.

He replied: “I could care less. I’m going bald too. Does it matter that you’re bald?”

They married last year.

“I could not imagine being in the life that I’m in now,” she said. “I never thought I’d be here.”