Rachel Henault was 12 when her mother went out for a night of fun almost five years ago and never returned.
On Sunday, she joined other survivors and relatives near a memorial of crosses and photographs for the 100 people killed in one of the nation’s deadliest nightclub fires.
“February 20 stole many innocent lives, but they haven’t really left us,” Henault said Sunday of the victims. “They’re everywhere we are.”
The fire on Feb. 20, 2003, erupted when the tour manager for the 1980s rock band Great White set off pyrotechnics at the start of a concert at The Station.
Sparks ignited flammable soundproofing foam on the walls and ceiling, engulfing the one-story building in flames and toxic smoke and trapping concertgoers inside.
‘That night is so vivid in our hearts and minds’
More than 200 people also were injured in the fourth-deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history. The band’s tour manager and the club owners reached plea deals two years ago on involuntary manslaughter charges.
“It is still so difficult to imagine that that much time has passed, since that night is so vivid in our hearts and minds,” Jessica Garvey, whose sister, Dina DeMaio, died in the fire, told the crowd.
The Station Fire Memorial Foundation commissioned proposals for a permanent memorial at the fire site. The winning design, unveiled at the service, proposes a memorial park with a courtyard, a meeting house and memorial gardens honoring the victims.
A 100-string Aeolian harp will create soothing music and contribute to the “natural healing landscape,” said Stephen Greenleaf, a Rhode Island architect and one of the designers.
“Five years ago, a great tragedy happened right here on this cold and barren slab of asphalt,” said Thomas Viall, another of the designers. “Where will we stand five years from now? That was a central question Stephen and I attempted to answer through our design.”
No easy task
There are obstacles in creating the memorial. The land itself is tied up in lawsuits stemming from the fire and the memorial foundation is still working on a cost estimate for the project, though it has so far raised $100,000.
“We are closer than ever to creating this permanent, lasting memorial, but much hard work has yet to be done,” said Garvey, the memorial foundation president. “We are absolutely committed to seeing this project through.”
The service was held just weeks before Great White’s former tour manager, Daniel Biechele, is due to be released on parole from his four-year prison sentence. Biechele pleaded guilty to lighting the pyrotechnics without the required permit. He is scheduled to be freed in March.
Club owners Jeffrey and Michael Derderian pleaded no contest in September 2006 to involuntary manslaughter charges on allegations of illegally installing the foam. Michael Derderian was sentenced to four years in prison and is due out on parole in 2009. His brother was spared jail time.
Several hundred survivors and victims’ relatives sued dozens of people and companies after the fire. They have reached tentative settlements totaling more than $70 million with several defendants, though no money has been distributed yet.