WEST WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) -- Jack Russell tells Target 12 he remembers feeling ill before the Great White concert that ended with a pyrotechnic ignited, deadly fire and he tells us he even thought about canceling the show on that frigid Thursday, a decade ago in West Warwick.
- Complete Coverage: Club Fire Tragedy
"Sometimes it seems really far away and there are other days I could almost smell it," Russell said. "You know the frustrating thing is, is there's nothing that I can ever say that will ever make anyone feel any better."
Records indicate the fire started at 11:07 on February 20, 2003 at The Station nightclub, after a round of pyrotechnics was ignited. Within seconds, foam insulation in the venue was on fire. Russell had just grabbed the microphone to begin singing ‘Desert Moon' for a crowd of 462 people. 100 died. 230 were injured.
Looking back, Russell acknowledges what he admits is obvious with '20-20 hindsight'; He wishes ‘to God we never would've even thought of' using pyrotechnics.
"It was such a small part of the show," he said from California, referring to the pyrotechnic plans for The Station concert. "It was only for that first song ."
Russell added that he had no reason to believe the fireworks would start a fire nor would he have argued if someone told the band they could not use pyrotechnics.
"Plenty of nights we were on that tour (in 2002 and 2003) that we were told no to using fireworks," Russell said. "We said okay, fine."
Court documents indicate Great White's tour manager Daniel Biechele fired off 3 pyrotechnic ‘gerbs' that investigators and eyewitnesses say set the insulation ablaze about 20 seconds after the first wave of sparks. State investigators later determined smoke filled the club in less than 1 minute and fire broke through the roof in just over 5 minutes.
Russell said the crowd included ‘20 or 30 friends' who he knew by name, including a graphic artist who created some of his tattoos and designed the band's t-shirts. He said the fire claimed several of his friends and his lead guitarist Ty Longley.
"The only reason I'm alive," Russell said. "Is that I went right while others went left. I'm not trying to sound like, ‘oh poor me' because I'm one of the lucky ones. It never gets any easier. It's something I think about every single day."
Russell discussed how his role in the tragedy is viewed by other survivors and family members of victims. Last month, he offered the proceeds from a February 7, 2013 concert by his new band, Jack Russell's Great White, to The Station Fire Memorial Fund. His offer was rejected.
"It was supposed to be low key. We weren't looking for any publicity. I just wanted to do something to remember the people I lost," he said. "It was sad when they said no but I understand the frustration. I get it. I don't blame anyone for blaming me."
The last time Russell did an on camera interview in Rhode Island about the fire was the day after the tragedy.
"I thought somebody would be out with a fire extinguisher," he said to a crush of media on February 21, 2003. "And before you knew it, the lights went out and it was all over."
In the front of the crowd in The Station that night was 18 year old budding rock star Nicky O'Neil who was standing to Russell's right, adjacent to the stage. O'Neil's band Shryne was scheduled to open for Great White the day after the fire. His father David Kane relayed a chance meeting the day before the fire.
"Nicky went there to buy tickets and heard a voice say, "Why do you want to see that old washed up band," Kane said. "Nicky then realized it was Jack Russell. And he hit it off famously with him. And Jack was very nice to him and I guess Nicky was just thrilled having met him."
Kane acknowledges that fair or not, there is a great deal of bitterness toward Russell from friends and family of the victims. Kane says his frustration with Russell is that the lead singer was never charged while Great White's tour manager served about 2 years after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter.
"How come he (Russell) walks when this guy Dan Biechele, who was just working for Russell has to go to prison?" Kane asked "It was ridiculous. It was wrong. It was unfair."
"There was no malicious intent on anybody's part," Russell said, comparing the tragedy to a plane crash. "tt was just a horrible, horrible accident. All these series of events had to come together to make this one thing happen. The foam had to be there. Different things had to happen. It wasn't just one thing."
Russell said he understands why so much anger is aimed at him and does not blame anyone for blaming him.
"I know how much I hurt. I can't imagine how it feels like for a mother to lose their son or a husband to lose his wife," Russell said. "What do you say when someone's lost a loved one? Nothing. I can't bring anyone back."
Russell, who is involved in a legal fight with his former band mates over the use of the
name Great White, did play his planned benefit concert on February 7. He said he would send the proceeds to a charity started by the 9 year old son of the Ty Longley.
Special coverage of the Club Fire Tragedy: Ten Years Later will begin Wednesday on Eyewitness News Live at 5 on WPRI 12.
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