The cake is lush and bright and perfumes the room with the scent of lemon.
“Happy Birthday Nicky,” it reads in baby-blue cursive.
Nick O’Neill’s family is gathered for his 28th birthday, in late January, at the home of his mother, Joanne, and father, Dave Kane. Cornbread and chicken are warming in chafing dishes. Nick’s 3-year-old nephew, Asher, darts among the mingling grown-ups, shouting “peek-a-boo!”
Nick died 10 years ago in The Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, R.I. But his parents still give him birthday parties. They speak to him every day as though he’s in the house, coming and going and very much alive. They detect messages from him on passing license plates, and in the flickering light in the dining room. It’s Nicky checking in, they say when the bulb inexplicably lights up.
That night of Feb. 20, 2003, Dave dropped the lanky 18-year-old at a friend’s house before a concert by the rock band Great White. “The show must go on,” Nick said as he got out of the car, the last words Dave ever heard from him.
The time that followed was an incomprehensible fever dream, threaded with pain. Joanne relived the fire repeatedly in nightmares, always trying to save him. And of all her questions, one tortured her most. Did her child feel pain? Then they started seeing the signs, and there was comfort.
At today’s party, they hope for more, to speak to Nick. They have invited a woman who says she communicates with the spirit world. She takes a seat near a glowing fire in the living room. The guests gather on the sofa and chairs. Joanne and Dave sit, take hands, and watch expectantly as she begins.
• • •
The Station nightclub is now just a barren parking lot on a stretch of suburban road. There is a rusted marquee and a patch of leaf-covered dirt staked with crosses made of lumber from the fallen building. On occasion, a figure can be seen stopping to leave mementos.
The site betrays little of the horror of that cold Thursday night 10 years ago, when, in just six minutes, flames ignited by pyrotechnic sparks exploded into an inferno of poisonous gas and unimaginable heat. One hundred people died. Firefighters found the dead jammed like matchsticks into a narrow hallway at the front door, where people clawed over one another to escape, or in scattered clusters where they were trapped or searched in vain for other exits.
The roughly 350 who made it out — some of them horrifically burned — heard screams inside and, as the flames rose, heard them fall silent.
Some lost friends or loved ones who had been a step behind; the difference between life and death was often inches, or seconds, or dice-roll decisions to move one way instead of another.
For the survivors and the families of the dead, the hell inside the tiny roadhouse that night became a cataclysm upon which new lives had to be built. Some, like Gina Russo, who underwent 54 surgeries for severe burns, channeled their pain into public causes. A few, like Angel Amitrano, who lost her father, moved far away. Many are left with memories and tokens they can neither forget nor keep too close, like the family of Matthew Pickett, an avid concertgoer who set out to tape the show but wound up recording his own death. Investigators gave them a remastered copy, but they have squirreled it away, vowing never to listen.
Dave and Joanne were forced to find their own path, as did Melanie Fontaine, whose journey began moments after the fire started.
• • •
Just before the lights failed and black smoke enveloped her, Melanie Fontaine released her fiance’s hand. The instinct to hold tight ceded to the desperate thoughts churning through her mind, and she let go.
John had reached back to clutch her hand just a moment before, when the mass behind them started to push in a panicked surge toward the door. Melanie pictured the two of them getting crushed and knew how much worse off he would be, brittle-boned and stooped from a painful genetic condition, more likely to fracture something.
That was her fear then — not the fire. And over the screeching alarm and the rising din of human noise she shouted to him and let go. He would be steadier on his own. He was a step closer than her to the door. He’d be OK.
She hoped her brother Mark and his friends were close behind.
Sudden darkness changed everything. She was choking, blinded. Around her was nothing but screaming and shoving, everyone for himself. Something knocked her down, something else swept her to the side.
Stay down, she thought, and started to crawl. She was disoriented and didn’t know which way was out. The layer of inky smoke at the ceiling ignited, and a blast-furnace flash roared overhead. A sting, like high voltage, seared across her hands and back. Strange. Shouldn’t it feel hotter? She was on fire, she assumed, and, reaching a hand before her, felt a wall. She turned her back to it and pressed hard, hoping to snuff out any flames. Then she slouched. A dreamy feeling was coming over her, and she felt herself drifting, as though to sleep. If this was dying, it didn’t seem so bad.Continued...