February 16, 2009 — A lot of descriptors besides “odd” can be thrown at the objects and locations featured on O.T.I.S. For instance, some of them are also, at best, intriguing, others surprising, quite a few, honestly, are a little silly. At worst, more than a few of them are slightly morbid. I dare say, though, that to this point none have been downright uncomfortable. But there is a dark side to oddity hunting, and for the subject of this entry, I’m definitely banging my shins repeatedly and stumbling around with my hands thrown blindly in front of me. You see, anytime a dredged-from-the-devil tragedy causes the 80s radio-filler “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” to start playing on an endless loop inside your head, it’s definitely an oddity. And just to make it clear, I realize full well that I’m walking a tightrope for this article. I also realize full well that I suck at tightrope walking.
On February 20, 2003, 472 people gathered at a small nightclub called The Station in West Warwick, RI, to do all the more hedonistic things people do at nightclubs, on this particular night to the strains of 80s one-hit-semi-wonder band Great White. Mere seconds into the concert, though, the band’s ill-thought-through pyrotechnics display burned the place down into ash tray leavings in such a short time that it makes one wonder why the phrase “fast as fire” has not yet become a tiresome cliché in our language. The nightclub fire killed an absurdly round number of people (100) and injured twice as many. It was a grimy, horror-filled night that most victims and participants would like erased from their memories. For the rest of us, there’s footage of the night to re-watch over and over again.
A local-channel cameraman happened to be filming in the club that night and caught the entire range of emotion in the little box on his shoulder, from cheerfulness to surprise to confusion to panic to incomprehension to grief. The footage is linked to at the Wikipedia entry on the subject, which gives me a degree of separation that, although my conscience doesn’t necessarily need, it needs to at least pretend it does. Be forewarned, though, that the footage, while not being outright gruesome, is still terrifying enough to make one never want to enter a building ever again.
One of the infuriating things about tragedy is that it has no scale. Some tragedies are worse than others only technically. When a four-year-old girl is hit by a truck, it’s a stamped-in-bronze tragedy. When thousands die at the hands of an inhuman dictator, it’s still stamped in that same bronze. In some ways, this makes sense. Well, actually, only one. To the individuals directly affected by a tragedy, it always feels like it’s the worst thing that could have happened to them. To those of us outside the tragedy, we often must still agree, regardless of the circumstances, if only for the mere reason that we cannot and do not want to imagine ourselves going through the same. Whether your adult son died on patrol in Iraq, your whole family in a boating accident, or your wife dancing drunkenly in a nightclub, who are the rest of us to say that it’s not all the same pain? Damned Pandora.
Of course, it’s a tragedy in itself that tragedies aren’t rare enough to be oddities intrinsically. However, in the case of The Station fire, it has something that most other tragedies don’t have: a strange sheen of 80s hair band rock n’ roll. Because of a quirk in the nature of humanity, the difference between tragedy and comedy is a fine line...a fine line that is capable of being bent slightly upward into a smile or just as easily downward into a frown. Somehow, this makes all tragedies, no matter how horrible, only three lines away from a punch line at any given time, and some are closer than others. Because of its direct ties to an easily and justly maligned music genre and an embarrassing time in general for our popular culture, The Station fire is obscenely close to being, well, I’m just going to say it...funny...ish. Or at least sad to the level of hysterical hilarity. The "cruel joke" we're always hearing everybody talk about in melodramatically serious literature. That might be a whole other topic, though.
From the headlining band of that horrible night and topical interviews with Dee Snyder of Twisted Sister (complete with intercuts of him performing in drag) to benefit concerts featuring Tesla and commercials starring Brett Michaels of Poison (complete with headband), there’s enough incongruity here to build the world’s strangest bit of architecture. No matter how much you like Something to Believe In as a song, the subgenre, like many others in our culture, is singularly incapable of seriously tackling tragedy as a subject matter in any way. So when it becomes linked to one for reasons beyond its control, it just has to flail bravely and hope sincerity can overcome parody. It usually can’t.
And all that weirdness is exactly why The Station calamity stuck out to the degree that it did to make me curious enough to check it out. I mean, I’ve never tried to visit Ground Zero, the Gettysburg Battlefield, or the memorial for the Oklahoma City bombing, but I have visited the spot of The Station fire. You work out what that means about me. Please.
If the van-art-style mural of giant rock star portraits against the backdrop of an American flag on its façade and the little more than hand-painted sign announcing its name were any indication, The Station couldn’t have been much more inviting in its heyday than the pile of ashy rubble that it became. Of course, now, six years after the fire, all that has been bulldozed away, leaving a bit of gently sloping bare land and a blank marquee out front with a hand-written sign taped to it that reads, “Never Forget 02.20.03.”
Outlining the vacant lot where the nightclub stood is a large group of hand-made crosses decorated with pictures, beads, stuffed animals, notes, all the usual accoutrements of roadside memorials. A few folding chairs and a shrine or two are also present, and a small green dumpster off to the side is the only way possible to make this place seem even sadder. I once visited a paupers’ graveyard in New Orleans, and it reminded me somewhat of that.
According to Chuck Klosterman in his book Killing Yourself to Live the memorial was improvised by a group of cokeheads and lesbians using the floorboards of the razed club. Normally I would cite that insight without sourcing it, but it just seems too remarkable a one to steal.
When we visited, just a few weeks before the sixth anniversary of the disaster (seems like a real flaw in the English language that both the best moments that happen in life and the worst have "anniversaries"), the tableau was covered in snow, much like that original February night. The snow made the place seem tranquil, holy, and betrayed the footprints of recent visitors, which was a bit comforting...even though I didn’t need any comfort. I’ve seen pictures of the memorial in other seasons when the area is just a dirt plot, and it’s the second only-way-possible to make the place seem even sadder.
Of course, as I broached briefly in the Spooner Well article, I still have somewhat of a philosophical problem with makeshift memorials on the site of violent death. Not to reiterate too much, but from what I remember in grammar school, you’re supposed to memorialize the dead in the private dignity of a cemetery where they are laid peacefully to rest, not on the unsanctified side of a well-traveled road where they are laid brutally to death. I’m just not sure what a roadside-type memorial memorializes. For instance, what is this one on the site of The Station fire supposed to make us remember? Not to have pyrotechnic shows in closed spaces where a majority of your audience is at various levels of drunkenness? Already got that, thanks. Of course, in this case, there was enough death to make this an event, as opposed to the random death of a motorist or two, so I have less of a problem with it...especially if, as it seems to be the case, this is just a transition step to a planned memorial park on the spot.
Anyway, by this point in the timeline, multimillion-dollar suits have been settled, blame has been assigned, jail time has been served, regulations have been altered, and support funds have been raised. But this glaring blank spot of land remains, for all intents and purposes and despite the large number of crosses adorning it, a glaring blank spot of land. And that song is still in my head.
On a personal note, it was while visiting this oddity that I broke my long-held streak of Not Falling Down. I was pretty proud of this streak, as it was going on five years, was currently ahead of many of my other streaks, and was always fun to bring up in conversation. Fortunately, I did it in dignified enough fashion, falling straight down with a minimum of air-thrashing, cracking the ice patch where I landed, and not screaming like a girl as I fell.
It was more like screaming like Dee Snyder dressed up as a girl.