The band didn’t immediately realize the gravity of the situation — guitar player Mark Kendall said he told his wife on the phone that he expected to finish the show after the fire was extinguished. Russell later approached firefighters to ask if everyone made it out OK, unaware that scores — including his rhythm guitarist, Longley, 31 — were dead.
A tearful Biechele pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to four years in prison for setting off the illegal fireworks. But some felt his boss, Russell, should have been the one behind bars.
“I think it’s so unfortunate that [Biechele] took the rap and not Jack Russell,” said Chris Fontaine, whose son was killed and daughter was badly burned in the fire. The daughter’s fiance was also killed.
Russell’s lawyers say he wasn’t charged because his actions were not criminal: He did not ignite the pyrotechnics, he had no financial interest in the club, and he had no role in installing the flammable foam. Russell also maintained that the band had permission for the fireworks.
Eventually, Great White’s insurance company paid $1 million to fire victims and survivors, scarcely putting a dent in the almost incalculable damage from the fire.
Russo, now president of the Station Fire Memorial Foundation, said her group rejected any proceeds from Russell’s benefit concert because it seemed to her a publicity ploy. She hastened to add that the group does not take funds from others who were involved in the disaster, including other members of Great White who broke with Russell and now tour separately.
“It’s just not appropriate,” she said. “It’s the whole Great White name, and in our world, it’s tarnished.”
Russell recognizes the animosity toward him, saying, “I can’t imagine how people feel who lost like their wife, lost their son, lost their daughter, lost their husband or whatever, I can’t imagine the depth of their pain.’’
But he said people should realize that the fire haunts him, too. “This was a life-changing event for everyone,” he said. “It’s not like something I forget about.”
He has spent the last decade in a swirling haze of band tours, heavy drinking, and drug abuse, often at the same time. By the summer of 2010, he could no longer stand for an entire performance, and he suffered a perforated bowel that left him in a coma, near death.
Russell attributed the grave illness to a fall, but Kendall, the guitarist who cofounded Great White with Russell in the 1970s, believes it was the long-term damage from substance abuse. Kendall also said that Russell was having difficulty standing because years of using the steroid prednisone, to strengthen his voice, had severely atrophied his leg muscles.
By the time Russell slipped into a coma, Kendall, weary of Russell’s cycles of substance abuse, rehab, and fleeting sobriety, had moved on. Russell was replaced with a new lead singer, while Kendall secured the copyrights to the band’s name.
“All we wanted was a sober, healthy Jack Russell, one that could command the stage and do what he does,” said Kendall, who is touring with Great White and recently drew close to 300 people at a show near San Diego with tickets averaging $45, triple the price of admission to Russell’s benefit.
Russell survived the perforated bowel, but it left him a physical wreck, said Robby Lochner, a guitar player who met Russell after surgery in 2011. He’s feeling better now, free of the colostomy bag and able to stand during shows. Lochner said Russell seemed to get his drinking under control following the alcohol-poisoning death of a long-time friend the summer of 2011.
“He turned the page, in a big way,” Lochner said.
Russell claims he hasn’t had alcohol for more than a year and that Marlboro cigarettes are his only addiction. And, he said, life is looking up in other ways, too, starting with his new wife, Heather, a 39-year-old nurse, who was constantly at his side when he was so sick. He gushes that she has given new meaning to the love ballads he was writing back in the 1980s.
“The songs I wrote were really about this fantasy world that I never knew existed,” Russell said. “I have that now.’’
Though Kendall was never publicly vilified — he had little to do with the decision to use indoor fireworks — he said it took him a long time to recover from the fire. Now a 55-year-old grandfather, Kendall said he finds comfort in playing music and in his church, and he has kept in close contact with several fire victims.
“Nothing has been more healing than the fellowship with them,” he said, “because they’ve been through so much, and I’ve been a witness to all this.”Continued...