On Sacred Ground

by Emma Wohl

Two days after the ten-year anniversary of the Station Nightclub Fire, the ground where the club stood is smooth. A circle of crosses has been planted in memorial to some of the 100 people who died. A few people circle the grounds, some just stopping by out of curiosity. After a few minutes the only person left is a middle-aged man named Mike.

“Oh, hey,” he says with a shrug, seeing me stop to take pictures. “Here it is.”

I ask if he visits the site often, and he launches into his story: he was at the Station the night of the fire, but he was outside when it started. He left with two friends who wanted to smoke, but he saw the building go up in flames. At the time, he lived behind the woods on the other side of the street from the club. He moved to Arizona after the fire, but now he’s back and lives just a few blocks away. He comes here regularly, sometimes once a week, to see what new things people have left at their loved ones’ crosses. I asked him if he’s heard about the plans to build a new memorial.

“I think that’s the worst thing they could do. Why would you want to commemorate a tragedy like this?” he says. Looking around at the makeshift memorials, he adds, “They want to cover it in asphalt and put up a marble monument.”

 

The station nightclub burned to the ground during a concert by the hair metal band Great White on February 20, 2003. The fire killed 100 people and injured more than 200.

The Station Fire Memorial Foundation has had plans for the site since the debris was cleared away. The foundation was founded in June 2003 by friends and families of the victims to ensure that they got a proper memorial on the ground where they died, according to the foundation’s website. The foundation’s members never intended to wait until the fire’s tenth anniversary to break ground on the memorial; they have been trying for years to learn whether they would be allowed to build it on the lot where the club stood. A lawsuit filed by those who lost family members or were injured in the fire tied up the property initially, but even after the lawsuit was resolved in 2009, with $176 million distributed among the injured and families of the dead, the fate of the lot remained up in the air. On the fire’s ninth anniversary the foundation sent a letter to Raymond Villanova, the lot’s owner, asking for “an acknowledgement or a statement of what is to become of the aforementioned site.” At the time, he gave no answer.

Some survivors felt that they had been abandoned because they were working-class people gathered to see a washed-up metal band. David Kane, whose 18-year-old son died in the fire, felt the delays holding up the memorial’s progress were “about a whole disregard for an entire section of our society who isn’t connected,” he told the New York Times last September. Kane was on one side of a dispute that drove a wedge between the families trying to build the memorial.  A faction of the Station Fire Memorial Foundation’s board wanted to ask the city to claim the land through eminent domain. Governor Lincoln Chafee told the press he was looking into how to turn the land over to the group, but some members felt that would not be fair to Villanova. Plans were made for a memorial at a different location in Warwick.

Then last September, without speaking publicly on the issue, the Villanova family agreed to donate the land for the construction of the memorial. Construction will start “once the snow thaws,” said Victoria Eagen, the foundation’s vice president. It may be a step, perhaps even a final one, toward helping people find peace with their experiences of the tragedy.

A design competition determined the plan for the new memorial. Contributors were asked to create a model that fulfilled four requirements: it would recognize each individual who died, allowing families to leave mementos for their loved ones; it would include interactive features; it would commemorate the efforts of first responders; and it would incorporate elements of the temporary monuments left at the site up until now. The final design for the Station Fire Memorial Park was unveiled in 2009. It will honor the victims’ and survivors’ love of music with a 30-foot-tall gateway topped by an Aeolian harp that will sound when the wind blows. Along a walkway through the gardens will be spaces for individual memorials to the victims and offerings to the dead.

In the absence of a permanent monument, the circle of crosses at the site of the fire served as a temporary memorial to the dead, incorporating photographs, flowers, candles, and other objects linked to the lives lost. In her book Memorial Mania, Erika Doss argues that these sorts of temporary memorials have seen a surge in recent years, “suggest[ing] that traditional forms of mourning no longer meet the needs of today’s publics.” These memorials, unlike more formal ones, allow for a multitude of voices and representations of those who died.

But as time passed at the site of the Station fire, even those who made the memorials grew tired of this form of recognition. “It’s overgrown and yucky and moldy,” Paula McLaughlin, whose brother and sister-in-law died in the fire, told the Times in September, at the time when the foundation learned it was being given the property. “Just looking at everything is sad,” Claire Bruyere, who lost her daughter, said.

Temporary memorials are all about those who died—the things they cared about in life and the people who loved them. These memorials’ focus on recreating how the dead lived, Doss writes, creates a persistent “inability to acknowledge human finality and reckon with loss” that is unique to memorials centered on material objects and spontaneous outpourings of grief. While more permanent monuments may mobilize people to action or educate the public on a certain issue, temporary memorials remain fixated around an emotional response.

While the families working on the memorial are ready to move on to a new stage of recognition, they do not want to forget the last ten years. At the Station Fire Memorial Park, a time capsule will house some of the artifacts from the temporary memorials.  But it will not be buried; in fact, the construction company building the memorial will be instructed not to dig into the ground on which the park will be built. To many, that ground is sacred.

 

On my visit to the site of the fire on February 22, Mike invites me to walk around. We visit each cross, where he points to things left for the dead—a box of ice cream sandwiches, a manicure set, photographs, balloons. He shows no concern as he picks up or rearranges these objects. “You can learn a lot about people from seeing what’s left here,” he says. He recognizes things that have been added recently among those that have been here for years.

Whenever Mike sees a balloon tied to a cross, he stops and cuts it loose, watching it float away. “I’m setting them free,” he says.

Emma Wohl b’14 is waiting for the snow to thaw.

 

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