WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) - Even after 10 years, former Gov. Don Carcieri is still overcome with emotion when he relives the horrific Station nightclub fire, choking back tears several times while recalling the tragedy.
"It's something you never get over," Carcieri told WPRI 12, wiping his eyes. "As bad as I feel and as emotional as I can get talking about it as I think back ... think about the families."
- Related: Doherty says Station fire 'just horrific'
- In-Remembrance: Photo memorial of Station victims
Carcieri sat down Sunday for an interview at the Warwick Crowne Plaza hotel, where families of the victims gathered in the days following the fire to learn if their loved ones had been identified. The two-term former governor, who has kept a low profile since leaving office in 2011, was in town to attend a memorial service at the West Warwick site later that day.
On Feb. 20, 2003 – the night The Station nightclub burst into flames – the newly inaugurated governor had been on the job for just six weeks. He was on vacation in Florida when his phone rang at 11:45 p.m. that night. Chief of Staff Ken McKay was on the other line.
"I'll never forget it as long as I live," Carcieri said. "He said, 'Governor, there has been a bad fire.'"
At that point it was unclear how many people had perished; McKay told Carcieri he was on his way to the site but had heard it was "20 or 30 people." A short time later McKay called back and told the governor it was much worse than that.
"I said, 'You've got to get me out of here,'" Carcieri recalled.
With the help of law enforcement in Florida, Rhode Island's governor was at the airport and on a flight within hours. By daybreak he was back in his home state and rushing to West Warwick. The scene of the catastrophe on Cowessett Avenue was still smoldering when state troopers brought him in.
"[It's] hard to describe the site and the feeling as you're standing there looking at what's transpiring," Carcieri said. "The pain just washes over you. You stand there amazed at the dedication – the firefighters on site doing this work, I know it's their job, but nobody is prepared to deal with this kind of thing."
Carcieri became particularly emotional when recalling the way people came forward wanting to lend a hand.
"They just wanted to do anything, anything, you know?" Carcieri said, his voice trailing off. "You had the clergy, you had social services, mental health people ... community organizations just trying to do anything they could to help."
"The whole state was trying to lift everyone up and respond to this," he said.
Carcieri's main role in the days and weeks following the fire was to communicate directly with family members. The governor and public-safety officials held press conferences twice a day, first from a nearby gas station, then at the Crowne Plaza and eventually at the R.I. Emergency Management Agency headquarters. A massive flag was hung inside the National Guard building and has become an iconic symbol of the time.
Information was flying around in the days after the fire. "Rumors, not facts," Carcieri said.
"The families were getting more agitated actually, so I said, 'Look, I'm going to make you a promise: I'm going to come here twice a day and you're going to hear from me first all the facts as to what we know, when we know it,'" Carcieri recalled. "'If you haven't heard it from me, don't believe it.'"
Carcieri then ordered the state fire marshal to sweep the state and identify similar buildings, with a special focus on nightclubs.
"We all felt anger. This didn't need to happen," Carcieri said. "That facility with the foam and no sprinklers and all of that ... they weren't permitted to do any kind of pyrotechnics and somebody made the decision to do it anyway. That decision turned the place and those lives upside down."
Cariceri said officials were able to identify some buildings statewide that didn't meet the current fire code standards. An overhaul of the state's regulations was still to come.
Three days after the fire, Carcieri said he remembers getting home late and watching the 11:00 news with the first lady, his wife Suzanne. As they watched the latest names of those who'd perished in the fire scroll by, one stuck out: Katherine O'Donnell.
"I said, 'My God, Sue,'" Carcieri remembered.
He realized he'd worked with O'Donnell's father and when his children were very young, they would all go camping together.
"We had lost touch and gone in different directions ... but we were good friends," Carcieri said, his eyes welling up. "We both sat there and just tears…."
In some way, he said, everyone in Rhode Island had been touched by the fire.
Five months after the blaze, Governor Carcieri sat before a white linen table in the shadow of the State House and signed a sweeping reform of the state's fire code into law, flanked by leading lawmakers including then-House Speaker William Murphy and then-Senate President William Irons. The changes included the repeal of "grandfather" exemptions for older buildings – which would have applied to The Station – and a requirement to install sprinklers in larger venues.
Two years after the signing, many of the requirements started taking effect and proved to be costly for businesses and nonprofits, such as churches, that were now required to install sprinklers.
Carcieri – who touted himself as a pro-business governor – said he stands by many aspects of the new fire code, but admitted some elements may have been an "overreaction."
"I don't care how old it is, the thing with grand-fathering, forget it. They should have had sprinklers," Carcieri said angrily. "There were some changes made [to the law] that I supported and others that could be made. I think at the time there was just so much anguish and desire to avoid this happening that it's natural I think that you overreact, and I supported it, I signed the legislation."
At the same time, a criminal case was working its way through the R.I. Attorney General's office and the judicial system. On Dec. 9, 2003, then-Attorney General Patrick Lynch announced the indictments of three people associated with the fire: club owners Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, and Great White band manager Daniel Biechele, who launched the pyrotechnics. All three were charged with 200 counts of manslaughter – two for each victim who died – but that was later dropped to 100 counts in a plea deal.
Jeffrey Derderian escaped prison time. But his brother spent 23 months at the Adult Correctional Institution and Biechele served 16 months before both were granted parole.
Many of those affected by the fire were outraged: some family members were shocked by the plea deal and demanded a trial so that all the facts could be laid out; others thought more people should have faced charges, including the West Warwick building inspector who failed to notice the highly flammable foam that covered the interior of the club.
Carcieri said he shared some of their disappointment with how the case played out.
"You just felt with the magnitude and the enormity of this tragedy, and having been instigated if you will by decisions being made by people, that somehow there should be some greater penalty paid by more people," he said.
When asked if he thought some people escaped punishment, Carcieri replied: "I don't know."
"That whole part of it was the attorney general's job and his focus," Carcieri said. "As human beings it's natural to feel, given the magnitude of what happened and the pain and suffering that was caused, that you want to hold somebody accountable. Our system is imperfect."
On a blustery Sunday, three days shy of the 10th anniversary, Carcieri arrived back at the Station nightclub site for a memorial service. The conditions were hauntingly similar to those on the morning after the blaze when he first stepped foot onto the crime scene: snowdrifts lined the parking lot and flurries would come out of nowhere, then disappear.
Carcieri was swarmed by victims and family members of survivors as soon as he was spotted. He hugged dozens of people, greeting them like old friends – acquaintances whose relationships were forged by terrible tragedy.
"All you can do is hug them and try and share that you understand the pain," Carcieri said. "We gave a lot of hugs."
Carcieri was the fourth speaker on the list. Hundreds in attendance clapped when he made his way to the podium, their mitten-covered hands producing a muffled applause.
He thanked everyone and again struggled with his emotions as he recalled how Rhode Island came together after the fire.
"At the time of our state's worst tragedy, in many respects it was our people's finest hour," Carcieri told the crowd.
Hoods and hats nodded in agreement.
During the earlier interview at the Crowne Plaza, Carcieri expanded on that thought, recalling it as "in essence the whole state, just trying to do everything they could to help in some way."
"You marvel at the human spirit, you marvel at the people who survived this and built new lives," he said.