As death toll rises, band quietly slips out of town

Lead singer toured site of R.I. fire before leaving

February 23, 2003|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

It was one of the few questions asked at a Friday afternoon news conference about the fatal nightclub fire that Rhode Island officials refused to answer: Where is the band?

The answer was clear to anyone happening to be standing next to Gate 17 at Providence's T.F. Green Airport yesterday afternoon: The band was leaving town.

As more than a hundred passengers waited to board Southwest Airlines Flight 1635 to Baltimore-Washington Airport at 3:15 p.m., three men in dark caps and wraparound glasses breezed up to the preboarding entrance with rolling carry-on bags in tow. As if on cue, gate agents lowered the belt-like barrier and whisked them onto the plane.

The tattooed arms, silver bracelets and long stringy blond hair were a giveaway for lead singer Jack Russell, despite the black wool hat that he had pulled tight over his head.

Russell had been wandering around the smoky remains of the club, The Station, on Friday morning, granting a few interviews to newspaper reporters and camera crews. But as the death toll rose, he dropped out of sight.

"Where is the band? Have you interviewed the band?" reporters shouted at the crowd of Rhode Island officials at a news conference Friday afternoon. But there was only silence, prompting some reporters to snicker about an old rock `n' roll song, "Band on the Run."

Yesterday afternoon, the band - a guitarist has been missing since the fire - took open seats in rows 6 and 7. They removed their sunglasses, but not their caps. Passengers whispered, turned heads and stared at faces that seemed familiar. Russell was wearing gray sweat pants with a stripe down the side, and a black T-shirt that read, "Doors of Perception."

When the plane began to lurch wildly through some choppy air after takeoff, at least one passenger wondered whether the band's presence was a sign that he might have been better off on a later flight.

According to two flight attendants, Russell ordered a ginger ale.

When the plane landed, a reporter in the rear of the plane dashed down the concourse trying to catch up with the band and perhaps ask a question or two. But they were gone.

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