Two minutes that seemed like forever

Great White fan relives terrifying moments before escape from R.I. inferno

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

WEST WARWICK, R.I. - Christopher Travis felt certain he would die.

The fire had plunged the club into darkness, and the ghoulish shrieking had begun. Travis is a big man, a 6-foot-tall construction worker. But from somewhere, a blow smacked him face-down onto the floor.

People were trampling on his hands now. They were falling on top of him. He started to cough. Every breath burned.

He thought he knew the floor plan of The Station from the many concerts he had seen there. But he was in a sea of blackness now. A despair as thick as the smoke settled over him.

Where am I? he thought. Which way do I go? Will I make it out alive?

There was never any question in Travis' mind that he would see Great White on Thursday night - the night 96 people would die in an inferno ignited by the heavy metal band's pyrotechnics.

Though he is 37 now, Great White had stayed in his personal rock 'n' roll pantheon since he first put their cassette in his boombox as a hard-partying teen-ager growing up in southeastern Massachusetts.

He had fallen in love with Great White by accident. It was March 25, 1984. He was 18. He and his friends traveled to the Providence Civic Center to see a Judas Priest show. Great White was the opening band. Travis had never heard of them.

But when they got on stage, the lead guitarist blew Travis away. The guitar was loud, charging, had attitude. On the drive back home, he and his friends talked about Great White, not Judas Priest. The next day, Travis went out to buy Great White's first album.

Travis wanted to be like the hard rockers - Motley Crue, the Scorpions, Kiss, Van Halen - whose posters covered his walls. He grew his hair long and parted it the middle. He stepped out for concerts in leather vests, a heavy metal fashion statement of the 1980s.

After every show, he pasted the ticket stub into an album. He also collected guitar picks. One of his most cherished was one a friend had gotten from Mark Kendall, a guitar player for Great White.

When he married in 1993, his wife made him take down the heavy metal posters. But after a painful divorce two years ago, his single friends began inviting him to nightclubs where they still played the music that he had listened to as a teen-ager.

Late last year, his friends egged him into coming to The Station for a double bill featuring Dirty Deeds and Believer - AC/DC and Ozzy Osbourne tribute bands. It was there that he noticed a Day-Glo pink sheet announcing the Feb. 20 show: "Great White w/Fathead. $15 in advance. $17 at the door."

He was beside himself. The day the tickets went on sale, he eagerly got into his red pickup truck and drove the one hour from his home in Lakeville, Mass., to the club in West Warwick to buy them.

In the weeks before the show, Travis had his eight Great White albums on heavy rotation in his truck's CD player. He is a construction worker for National Grid, the utility company, and his work requires him to travel across New England. On the road, he would crank up the volume and sing along at the top of his lungs.

On Thursday, Travis worked a short day. He came home, shaved and traded his sweat shirt and coveralls for black jeans, a black T-shirt and an orange-and-white Harley Davidson jacket. A friend was supposed to join him. But the friend's jaw was wired shut from a bar brawl. He didn't want to be seen that way. So Travis went by himself.

On the ride to West Warwick, he played two Great White CDs - their greatest hits and their album Psycho City.

He arrived at The Station at 10:30 p.m. The parking lot was so full that he had to park behind a gas station down the street. He was amazed. He didn't think Great White still had so many fans. Great White had only a few of its original members, after all.

He said hello to the bouncer at the front door and persuaded the girl at the ticket booth to let him keep his stub. Inside the one-story building housing the small nightspot, one of the opening bands, Trip, was finishing its set. Hundreds of people were dancing and cheering. The air was moist from a lot of perspiring people in a small place.

Waitresses were threading through the crowds with trays of drinks. Perhaps too many, Travis thought. Some people seemed to be staggering. A few bumped into him.

Travis bought a cola - he doesn't drink alcohol - and made his way to the front of the stage. He thought members of Great White might be milling about there. He wanted to meet them, particularly the tattooed lead singer, Jack Russell. But he didn't find anyone. So he went outside and walked around their tour bus. Still no luck.

He went back inside and took a spot near the middle. It was too crowded up front. And anyway, there was an attractive brunette who happened to be standing next to him. He decided to stay put.

A popular local DJ, Dr. Metal, mounted the stage just before 11 p.m. to introduce Great White. He threw promotional T-shirts and hats into the audience. Then the members of Great White strutted onto the stage.

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