HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — He walks with a cane now and, until recently, he wore a colostomy bag surgically attached to his waist, a humbling reminder of his near death in 2010, after years of drug and alcohol abuse.
Jack Russell, 52, has fallen a long way since that night 10 years ago when he preened before a packed house in The Station nightclub, before his band’s pyrotechnics turned the place into a deadly inferno. In minutes, the front man for the fading ’80s hair band, Great White, became a vilified figure in a national tragedy, not just for his role in starting the fire, but for his seeming insensitivity: He talked about the band’s upcoming summer tour even while The Station burned before his eyes.
Russell had hoped to do something positive earlier this month for the 10th anniversary, headlining a concert to raise money for a permanent memorial at The Station site in West Warwick, R.I. But fire victims and their families would have none of it; he remains a pariah in their eyes. A statement from the Station Fire Memorial Foundation said simply, “We feel the upset caused by his involvement would outweigh the amount of funds raised.”
Rock fans apparently weren’t keen on Russell’s idea either. Only about 30 people showed up to see “Jack Russell of Great White” in the Saint Rocke concert hall on the Pacific Coast Highway near Los Angeles, raising an estimated $180, even after Russell announced he would donate the proceeds to the son of his guitar player, Ty Longley, who perished in the fire.
“It was supposed to be a tribute,” he later said, sheepishly.
That’s the way it’s been for Russell, who was never criminally charged in connection with the fire, but who never made peace with survivors either. In fact, Russell seems to have a penchant for antagonizing critics, like getting a facelift in 2006 because “the look in the mirror just doesn’t represent how I feel inside,” which some saw as insensitive to people disfigured by The Station fire.
“He never even apologized” for his role in the disaster, said Gina Russo, who survived the fire with horrible burns; her fiance was killed. “Everyone would look at this differently if Jack Russell would stand up and say, ‘I’m sorry,’ ” she said.
Today, Russell acknowledges the disconnect, saying, “I never meant to hurt anybody.” But he prefers to remain publicly silent rather than debate whether he has shown enough contrition.
“It’s been almost 10 years and no matter what I say it’s never going to make anybody feel any better about it, and sometimes it might make them feel worse, so I really would rather not say too much, you know,” he said as he headed for his dressing room after the benefit.
Russell initially balked at a Globe request for an interview — he rarely talks to the press. But he agreed to open up the next morning, welcoming a reporter to the 45-foot fishing boat that he calls home to discuss everything from his bitter split with his band mates to his battles to stay sober to the tragedy that sent him spiralling.
“After The Station, I was really down, was taking anything I could take,” he said. “I would just sit for hours and cry.”
Russell wouldn’t say whether he felt partially responsible for the 100 deaths in the fire, though friends say his broken body is a form of self-punishment. For his part, he still expresses surprise at his unwanted place in history.
“All I ever wanted to do was be a singer,” said Russell, still looking the part of a rock star with dangling earrings, four on each side, and his trademark, pirate-style bandana over long, sandy blond hair. “I just hope that I put more into this world than I took out of it.”
By Feb. 20, 2003, Great White was well past its 1980s glory days, when “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” was a hit single and two albums went platinum. Once popular enough to pack arenas, the band had been reduced to playing out-of-the-way roadhouses like The Station, with its capacity of 400.
That day, Russell swaggered around West Warwick, handing out free tickets to anybody who recognized him or the band’s name, adding unknowingly to the ranks of the dead and injured.
As Russell took the stage, road manager Daniel Biechele set off the pyrotechnics that were part of the show, igniting flammable sound-proofing materials along the back wall, spreading flames so quickly that the audience seemed momentarily transfixed. A chilling videotape of the fire shows Russell saying “Wow . . . this isn’t good,” when he finally noticed the growing blaze behind him.
After ineffectually trying to douse the fire with his water bottle, Russell and most of the band quickly exited through the stage door while the audience surged toward the main entrance, creating a massive bottleneck that prevented escape. The ensuing inferno killed 100 people and injured roughly 230.Continued...