WEST WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) - Brendan Doherty wasn't supposed to be in charge that night.
Then a Lt. Colonel with the Rhode Island State Police, the future Superintendent was in command the night of the devastating Station nightclub fire because his boss, Col. Steven Pare, was out of town.
Just before midnight on Feb. 20, 2003, his phone rang. It was a district commander with the state police.
"He told me there was a bad fire and there are several people dead," Doherty recalled in an interview with WPRI 12.
Two hours later, another call. Things had gotten worse.
"This was not just a bad fire, this was… there were many many people killed in this," Doherty said.
Doherty left his Cumberland home and made his way to West Warwick. The site was still smoking when his cruiser pulled up to the Cowesett Avenue location.
"As far as law enforcement responding there is just no way to prepare for it," Doherty said. "You had families coming to the scene, you had young children coming to the scene wanting to know if their mother or father was there, it was just horrific."
Doherty's primary role in the wake of the blaze was to coordinate the identification process and account for missing persons.
Former Governor Don Carcieri recalled in the days after the fire, they couldn't find one person who was reported missing by their landlord.
"God bless the state police and all their contacts because they found this guy somewhere in the Midwest and he said 'yes that's me, I had told the land-lady I was going [to the club],' and either he went and left or changed his mind," Carcieri said. "[Doherty] did a phenomenal job of reconciling all of this."
In the days following the fire, family members gathered at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Warwick to await news of their loved ones. Doherty, who is an imposing figure, recalled being swamped when he entered the conference room where families were waiting.
"I was just inundated with requests from parents," Doherty said. "When it really hit me was when a mother grabbed me and wouldn't let go of me and she was showing me a picture of her daughter asking me if I had seen her daughter."
Answers were tough to come by at the time.
The identification process took days and Doherty said they brought in a special medical examination team from the federal government to work around the clock. His detectives made trips to dentist's offices to obtain records in an effort to identify bodies.
"I've seen so many tragedies in my career, my 28 years in the state police, but this is one that I'll never forget," Doherty said.
The smoldering plot of land that once housed The Station nightclub was quickly deemed a crime scene. Doherty said a challenge emerged: family members demanded they be allowed on the site to pay their respects.
With the help of an expert from the 9/11 tragedy, Doherty had a massive chain link fence erected so people could place flowers and other mementos without disturbing the investigation.
Doherty had a reputation for being a tough-as-nails investigator, taking down mobsters, investigating murders and locking up some of the worst criminals in Rhode Island's history. But even 10 years after the tragedy, the hardened former law enforcement official gets emotional remembering the reaction he got from those at the Crowne Plaza when he was asked to address the families.
"They were so appreciative of the state police and West Warwick police and fire, they were so appreciative, that I ended up not being able to speak right away because they were clapping so loud when I was introduced," Doherty said, pausing for a moment. "It was emotional because I saw that as, 'at least they know I was doing the best I can,' and I really wasn't able to talk for a minute."
Copyright WPRI 12