The death toll rose during the day Friday as firefighters searched through the charred shell of the one-story wood building. Rhode Island Gov. Don Carcieri said the number of dead had reached 95 by Friday afternoon.
“It would not surprise me to see a fatality number of over 100,” Carcieri told reporters, adding that more than 160 people were injured in the blaze, including some critically.
Late Friday afternoon firefighters finished pulling bodies from the the building in West Warwick, Rhode Island, about 15 miles southwest of Providence.
The hard rock band Great White had just started playing when giant pyrotechnic sparklers on stage began shooting up and ignited the ceiling above them. Some in the crowd said they thought it was part of the act, but the fire quickly spread, filling the building with thick, black smoke.
“All of a sudden I felt a lot of heat,” Jack Russell, Great White’s lead singer, told the Associated Press. “I see the foam’s on fire. … The next thing you know the whole place is in flames.”
He said he started dousing the fire with a water bottle but couldn’t put it out, then all the lights went out.
“I just couldn’t believe how fast it went up,” he said.
The entire club was engulfed in flames within three minutes, Fire Chief Charles Hall said. Club capacity was 300, but Hall said the number of people in the club was slightly below that limit.
The fire chief said the club, called The Station, had recently passed a fire inspection, but did not have a city permit for pyrotechnics. The building, because of its small size, was not required to have a sprinkler system.
Most of the bodies were found near the front exit, some of them burned and others dead from smoke inhalation, Hall said. He said some appeared to have been trampled in the rush to escape.
“They tried to go out the same way they came in. That was the problem,” Hall said. “They didn’t use the other three fire exits.”
The ages of the victims ranged from teens to late 30s.
“As much as we can prepare for anything like this the stark reality is hard to imagine,” said Dr. Joseph Amaral, a surgeon and president of Rhode Island Hospital, where many of the victims were taken. “One of the most remarkable things for me is the degree of inhalation injuries that everyone sustained.”
The pyrotechnics were used without permission from the club, said Kathleen Hagerty, a lawyer representing club owners Michael and Jeffrey Derderian.
“No permission was ever requested by the band or its agents to use pyrotechnics at The Station, and no permission was ever given,” she said.
The band’s singer, Jack Russell, said their management checked with the club before the show and the use of pyrotechnics was approved. Paul Woolnough, president of Great White’s management company, told the AP that tour manager Dan Biechele “always checks” with club officials before pyrotechnics are used. The AP could not locate Biechele for comment.
The owner of the Stone Pony, a well-known club in Asbury Park, N.J., said Great White failed to tell him they were using pyrotechnics for a concert there a week ago.
“Our stage manager didn’t even know it until it was done,” Domenic Santana told the AP. “My sound man freaked out because of the heat and everything, and they jeopardized the health and the safety of our patrons.”
This was the second deadly U.S. club disaster in four days. Early Monday, 21 people were killed and more than 50 were injured during a stampede at a Chicago nightclub that began after a security guard used pepper spray to break up a fight. In 1990, a fire at the Happyland social club in New York killed 87 people.