Victims of deadly fire from Feb. 20, 2003 honored in annual ceremony; plans for permanent memorial unveiled Sunday
WEST WARWICK — Bound together by heartbreak and loss, relatives and friends of the 100 lost in the Station Fire on Feb. 20, 2003 gathered Sunday at the tragedy’s Cowesett Avenue site to share their grief and memories at the Station Fire Memorial Foundation’s 10th anniversary memorial service.
But it was also a day to look ahead, as the foundation unveiled plans for a permanent memorial to be built on the site.
“The light is finally shining on a very long process,” said Gina Russo, the foundation’s president. “We’ve still got a ways to go, but it’s attainable. As hard as this can be we’ve got some incredible stuff to look forward to.”
Over the past decade the site has become a Mecca of sorts for those surviving the lost, and for fire survivors themselves. Tied up in red tape and legal wrangling until last year, it was unclear whether or not the site would ever be able to become the permanent memorial sought by the foundation and its supporters. Instead, many wondered if forever all that would be left there for mourners to visit was the collection of hand-crafted and lovingly placed homemade memorials many erected there to remember their loved ones.
Sunday, though, with temperatures in the mid-20s and wind whistling through the trees surrounding the lot a crowd numbering in the hundreds braved the bitter cold and let their own bitterness over the event go; their sorrow over the loss of loved ones has morphed into a bond that, over time, has become as strong as that shared by any group.
“Every one of us, in some way or another, is part of this,” said Rev. Dr. Donald Anderson, Executive Minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches. “When we come to this memorial we will remember the 100, because we can never forget them, and we will remember everyone who suffers because of this. There is one other number that comes to my mind, and that is the number one…ten years ago today, we were not Christians or Muslims or Jews or Atheists; we did not come from South County or Woonsocket or Aquidneck Island, we were one — we were Rhode Island.”
Governor Lincoln Chafee was in attendance, as was his predecessor and the governor who presided over the disaster and its immediate aftermath, Don Carcieri.
“For those whose lives have been forever changed by what occurred at this place,” Chafee said to the crowd, “I know that mere words will be of little comfort in the face of such unthinkable loss.”
“We are here today,” he added, “because in the words of the poet Thomas Campbell, ‘to live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.’”
“Being here brings it all back,” Carcieri told the crowd. “It kind of washes over us.”
“I can’t be here without getting very emotional still,” he added.
Representatives from the offices of Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, as well as police and fire from West Warwick were also there to pay homage to the tragedy and the lives it cut short.
Along with Sarah Mancini, who lost her son Keith; and Richard and Jean Moreau, whose daughter Leigh Ann perished in the fire; as well as Angela Bogart, whose mother Jude Henault was a victim that night — who all took the podium as guest speakers, was Dr. David Harrington, who treated burn victims the night of the fire and is the Director of the Rhode Island Burn Center at Rhode Island Hospital. He too, feels like a part of something bigger due to his part in the events of that night.
“We are all a part of this thing,” Harrington intoned, adding that he and his fellow burn doctors, “need your stories of hope, and of success over the years to keep us going; your stories are inspiring to us.”
“Our job as a community is to build this memorial and remember the 100,” he added, “but also to remember those who survived but maybe aren’t doing quite so well and who need our continued help and support — today is about them as well.”
Displaying the solidarity only seen in groups unified by tragedy, the crowd pressed close together and listened to performances from local musicians, some in the audience were finally overcome by emotion during the performances, wiping away tears as the music evoked memories of their lost friends and family. Whether it was Joe Silva’s “97 Angels,” Human Clay’s cover of Creed’s “My Sacrifice” or Lisa Markovich and Michael Kaczmarczyk’s “Sometimes,” the songs brought with them tears.
As has happened at previous memorial services, the names of all 100 victims were read aloud and 100 seconds of silence followed. Prior to that, however, was the unveiling of the plans for the memorial park, giving the assembled masses the opportunity to look forward to a time when the names of the lost will be etched on the site permanently and to be connected with a far more permanent reminder of one of the state’s worst tragedies.
It is a connection that everyone touched by the tragedy shares, and one that the Station Memorial Foundation’s president, for one, sees as more than that.
“We are blessed,” Russo finished. “We are a state and a community in New England that has come together to support this.”