The Great White Nightclub Fire: Ten Years Later

Rolling Stone
The Great White Nightclub Fire: Ten Years Later
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The Great White Nightclub Fire: Ten Years Later

Guitarist Mark Kendall is ripping through a solo on a new roadhouse rocker, "(I've Got) Something for You," when fog machines begin pumping vapors across the Chumash Casino stage, creating an illusion that the band is enveloped in smoke.

For many Eighties acts, the fog machine is a time-honored stage prop. But for Great White, that faux smoke serves as an unintentional reminder of a colossal tragedy synonymous with its name – a 2003 club fire that killed 100 people and injured 230.

"That is that band's legacy," says Victoria Potvin Eagan, a fan who escaped the inferno.

Still, 10 years later, the band continues to perform, not distancing itself from the tragedy – as if that were possible – but gingerly walking in its ruins.

"It's been a very hard fight," band member Michael Lardie says before the Chumash show, in Santa Ynez, CA. "But we believe in our music. And it's certainly worth whatever we have to do to keep going forward."

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During a sound check before the show, the band are energetic and enthused as they run through songs from their latest album, Elation, sounding much like the young Sunset Strip rockers they were when they began more than 30 years ago.

"If it comes across like we're a little hungry, that's the way we would like it," Lardie says.

If the fire wasn't enough to overcome, Great White is now forging ahead with a new singer, with the previous one now fronting an offshoot, Great White featuring Jack Russell. But the group most known for its 1989 cover of "Once Bitten, Twice Shy" has its loyal followers, including Alex Delgado, who showed up at the Chumash three hours before the show, hoping to have his Great White vinyl albums autographed.

As he stands just outside the showroom, a photographer with the casino offers to take the albums backstage, though he can't guarantee they'll be signed. Delgado, a former contestant on The Apprentice, will return to see the show three hours later. Even with their new frontman, he says, he's stoked that Great White is still around.

"I didn't know if they were going to go on after the fire," he says.

Technically, it wasn't Great White that took the stage on February 20th, 2003 at the Station nightclub in West Warwick, RI. The band had actually split in 2001. But when Russell's solo project failed to attract crowds, his management invited Kendall to play guitar, and Russell adopted the name Jack Russell's Great White.

"It was basically just me and him and his solo band," Kendall says backstage at the Chumash. "I didn't even know these people. I'd just met them."

But the banner outside the Station listed Great White as the night‘s headliner. And just seconds after the band launched into their first song, "Desert Moon," pyrotechnics lit by their tour manager caused a fire to ignite toward the back of the stage.

Russell, seeing the flame behind him, said, "Wow – that's not good," and initially tried to douse the fire with cups of water. As the flames spread and patrons calmly headed for the front doors, the band managed to easily escape through a fire exit near the stage.

"When I walked out the door, it just seemed like such an easy thing to do," Kendall says. "I just walked out. I just saw the door open."

After exiting the building, Kendall called his wife and told her the gig would be delayed until the fire was extinguished. But inside, a flashover spread rapidly along flammable foam used as insulation. Meanwhile, two of the four exits had been chained shut, and a bouncer initially forbade patrons from using the stage door, creating a bottleneck at the front door.

As the fire raged inside, bottles exploded, "black rain" fell from the ceiling and wood beams cracked. Some patrons were trampled, while others ran with their heads ablaze.

Victoria Eagan, who had walked to the Station from her home a block away, had been a couple of rows from the stage when the fire began. Two of the five friends she arrived with suffered serious burns. One never made it out. She's still not sure why some of the 420 fans made it and some didn't.

"There were people right next to the door that didn't get out," she tells Rolling Stone.

In a video taken that night, shouts of elation turn to horror movie screams just 90 seconds after the band launched its set. Two minutes after the "Desert Moon" kickoff, the camera catches a haunting visual – patrons stuck in a doorway, piled like wood, as black smoke billows over their heads.

"It was complete mayhem," Kendall says. "A disaster."

Minutes before opening act Slaughter begins its set, Great White drummer Audie Desbrow, who joined the band in 1986, is signing Delgado's records backstage. A few feet away sits Eagan, who still attends Great White shows – though she‘ll never be far from the exits again. On her right forearm is a tattoo that reads, "To whom that much has been given, much will be required."

Eagan admits she isn't a very spiritual person, but after she walked out of the Station catastrophe, that Bible verse became a mantra.

"Coming out of the fire and not having any lasting physical injuries – other than some lung damage – you spend a lot of time figuring out, 'Why not me?'" she says.

After communicating online with other survivors, she co-founded the Station Family Fund three months after the fire to help victims and survivors.

"That was my healing," she says. "That was my therapy."

She also co-founded the Station Fire Memorial Foundation, which aims to raise funds for a memorial park at the fire site. The non-profit recently acquired the land, which is currently filled with 100 crosses made from burned Station wood.

Eagan moved to Nevada six weeks ago. But before shipping out of West Warwick, she visited the site one last time.

"It holds a lot of emotion," she says. "It's kind of a sacred place."

While she has become friends with the band, Eagan said roughly half the survivors are angry at Great White.

"I don't begrudge anyone that has anger or resentment," she says, noting that each survivor has dealt with the fire in different ways. But most of Great White, she notes, wasn't even there that night.

Lardie was at his home in Las Vegas when the fire broke out. Then a member of Night Ranger, bandmate Jack Blades tipped him off with a phone call.

"Turn on CNN right now," Blades said.

When he did, Lardie saw footage of the blaze – and heard that a guitarist from the band was missing. Initial reports said it was Kendall. But it was actually Ty Longley, who reportedly died after returning to the burning building to retrieve his guitar.

As months and years passed, lawsuits and criminal charges were filed against the Station's owners and Great White's tour manager. As some also blamed Great White, Kendall debated his future.

"I didn't even consider playing guitar for quite a while until I found out there was a way to help," Kendall says.

The band began a benefit tour for victims and survivors that summer, and they would continue to perform benefits for the next two years. But the group wouldn't escape their new, dark association.

"Some of the emotions you go through are, like, 'What happens to the legacy?'" Lardie says. "Is this how we're always going to be known? Are we going to be able to rise above this? Are we going to be able to use the music to get back to that place where our music associates with happiness?"

Kendall, who fought addictions before the fire, could have easily fallen off the wagon afterward.

"I was praying with my pastor every day," he says. "I saw two psychotherapists and one psychiatrist. Nothing was getting me consistent with feeing better. It was just an emotional rollercoaster."

Eventually, he says, Station survivors helped him the most. A decade later, he's still in touch with some survivors daily.

"We have an absolute bond," he says. "The thing is, it's not just for them – it's for me. This fellowshipping, the strength it has in the healing is amazing. A hug – it's insane how much that does."

Eagan says Kendall is in touch with a core group of about 15 survivors. Recently one of them, Linda Fisher, joined the band onstage during the Monsters of Rock Cruise. Wearing a sleeveless shirt that displayed her many burn scars, she sang an emotional version of "Save Your Love."

"There were guys with tears streaming down their faces," Lardie said. "It's that moment of love and acceptance and forgiveness – it just enveloped all of us.

Backstage, Kendall drinks a Diet Pepsi and smokes an e-cigarette as he sits on a couch, his eyes hidden behind shades. While he has managed to stay sober, he says, Russell has not.

The band tried to go on with Russell several times, but his addictions, they say, became uncontrollable.

"He's been struggling with addiction ever since I've known him," Kendall says.

Through his management, Russell declined to comment for this story.

When Russell began canceling dates due to health problems and addictions, Kendall says, the band called on temporary replacements. Eventually, they kept one – former XYZ front man Terry Ilous.

"We were so used to drama, and we were so used to problems and hospitals and wheelchairs in airports – just all this extra stuff that almost became, like, normal," Kendall says. "When we had this guy filling in while Jack was recovering, we realized, man, that's not normal.

During its show at the Chumash, the band open with "Desert Moon," the tune that kicked off pandemonium in February, 2003. They also perform other fan favorites, including "Rock Me" and "Lady Red Light," along with several well-received new tunes, before concluding with "Once Bitten, Twice Shy." During the show, the roughly 700 fans – more with receding hair than Eighties big hair – don't seem to mind Russell's absence as Kendall wows them with blues-based guitar solos.

They'll never have another hit like "Once Bitten, Twice Shy," but casino gigs like this are clearly a step up from the Station. (Manager Obi Steinman was brought in after the fire to help rebuild the band's reputation.) And new songs like "Shotgun Willie's" have gotten decent radio airplay.

Eagan, standing near the exits, hangs out with Lardie's girlfriend while Delgado grooves closer to the stage, recording some of the performance with his iPad. After the show, the photographer who took Delgado's albums to the band returns them, signed by everyone. Smiling wildly, the fired would-be apprentice is more impressed with Great White than he was with Donald Trump.

"I was happy to see they kept going," says the engineer, clutching his records. "I'm going to get the new album."

Three weeks later, the band had toured through the Midwest while Eagan was back in Nevada, where the former mortgage company account executive is now studying to become a burn nurse. Like Great White, no matter how far from West Warwick she gets, the nightmare will always follow her. But despite the horrors that fire produced, she's glad she was at the Station that night.

"I'm a far better person than I was," she says.

Great White hasn't written any songs related to the fire, but Kendall said the fire has changed him as well.

"I think I got a lot stronger in my faith just from going through that," he says. "My wife and I – we're not crazy maniacs or anything, but we're believers. I think we just tried to get a little closer to God than before."

This article originally appeared on Rolling Stone: The Great White Nightclub Fire: Ten Years Later
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