WEST WARWICK, R.I. - An indoor fireworks display meant to kick off a heavy metal concert late Thursday turned a roadside nightclub into a gruesome firetrap, killing at least 96 people and injuring nearly 200 in the deadliest nightclub fire in a quarter-century.
The band, Great White, was just seconds into its first song when a set of spark-making canisters on stage ignited soundproofing insulation on the club's walls and ceiling.
Flames raced toward the back of the room, and as thick black smoke poured through the audience, cheering gave way to pandemonium as hundreds stampeded for the front door, trampling and crushing those who had fallen beneath them.
People inside the club described a scene of panic. Friends screamed for one another as a power failure doused the lights. People tossed chairs through windows to escape. Others crawled on all fours to keep smoke from their nostrils while clawing toward the exits. But many never made it out.
"It was complete, complete chaos," said Christopher J. Travis, a utility construction worker who suffered minor burns while pawing his way through the darkness to an exit. "People were screaming, people were burning up, you could smell the flesh burning."
Yesterday evening, firefighters were still pulling bodies from the smoking skeleton of the one-story building, stopping for a moment to pray after each grisly discovery.
Families waiting for word of their loved ones gathered at a hotel in neighboring Warwick as the state medical examiner began the grim task of identifying the human remains, some so charred and disfigured that state health officials expected to use DNA to make matches.
Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch said at a news conference that a "potential criminal investigation" was in its early stages. But he declined to answer questions about who the state police had interviewed and who, if anybody, might have been civilly or criminally responsible.
The club, called the Station, occupied a 60-year-old, wood-frame building on a commercial strip at the edge of this struggling former mill town, about 15 miles southwest of Providence. It lacked a sprinkler system, but officials said yesterday that none was required because of the club's age and small size.
The club, they said, had recently passed a fire inspection. Still, officials said, it lacked a permit for pyrotechnics. City Council members said the club had generated few complaints, other than occasional gripes from neighbors about loud music or improperly parked cars.
The club's owners, Michael and Jeffrey Derderian, sought to distance themselves from the catastrophic fire yesterday, saying through a lawyer that the band never requested or received permission to use pyrotechnics.
But the band's singer, Jack Russell, disputed that, saying the band manager had received approval.
Paul Woolnough, president of Great White's management company, said the tour manager "always checks" with club officials.
"I'm not going to reply to those allegations, but I do know that the club would have been informed, as they always are," Woolnough said.
However, other club owners where the band had played recently said its use of pyrotechnics had taken them by surprise. A week ago, the group set off pyrotechnics at the Stone Pony, a club in Asbury Park, N.J.
"Our stage manager didn't even know it until it was done," said Domenic Santana, owner of the Stone Pony. "My sound man freaked out because of the heat and everything, and they jeopardized the health and the safety of our patrons."
In a series of news conferences across the street from the club yesterday, Rhode Island Gov. Donald L. Carcieri made clear that he would devote the full extent of the state's investigative resources to figuring out how a neighborhood fixture turned into the deadliest club fire since 164 people died in a nightspot in Southgate, Ky., in 1977.
`Asking for trouble'
"This should not have happened," he said before a crowd of TV cameras and news crews from as far away as Japan. "It's an old building, without a high ceiling, and if you set up pyrotechnics, you're asking for trouble. There's a lot of issues we'll have to look into."
Leo Costantino, a West Warwick town councilman, was more blunt. "Anybody who's familiar with that building who would do pyrotechnics has got to be insane," he said. "It's a wood-frame structure. The idea that you could set up pyrotechnics in there is ludicrous."
A cameraman for local TV station WPRI, a CBS and CNN affiliate, was inside the club Thursday night filming for a future segment on safety in the aftermath of the Chicago nightclub fire last week that killed 21 people. One of the club's owners, Jeffrey Derderian, is a reporter for WPRI.
The Station, a former Italian restaurant that sits unobtrusively next door to a used car lot, had been a gathering spot for fans of such 1980s heavy metal groups as Quiet Riot, Ozzy Osborne and Judas Priest - and the tribute bands that played their music.