WEST WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) — Jim Paolucci never thought in a million years that his restaurant would be transformed into a triage center for burn victims.
But that’s exactly what happened to the Cowesett Inn the night of Feb. 20, 2003.
Paolucci remembers looking across the street and seeing bright orange flames shooting from the Station nightclub.
“I think about it when I drive into work every day,” he said. “The memories are embedded deep in my mind.”
Paolucci said concertgoers began flooding into the Cowesett Inn parking lot as thick black smoke billowed from the building.
“As the tragedy unfolded, we were bringing the injured inside the restaurant,” Paolucci recalled. “We tried to offer as much assistance as we could.”
The fire was devastating for Paolucci’s employees, so much so that nearly all of them refused to return to work the next day.
“It was difficult,” he said. “We turned over most of our staff.”
Paolucci remembers the moment one of his employees returned to the restaurant after taking six months off.
“She worked one day then realized she couldn’t do it anymore,” he said.
Paolucci said his restaurant also served as a command center for first responders, including Rhode Island National Guard Adjutant General Reginald Centracchio.
Centracchio, who also served as the director of the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency, said the memories from that night will forever haunt him.
“It’s surreal,” Centracchio said. “You can’t begin to try and put it into words.”
Centracchio will never forget the first responders who worked quickly and tirelessly to save as many lives as possible.
“You can have these plans, you can talk about what you’re going to do if it happens, but when it really happens is when you see it all unfold,” he said.
The command center eventually shifted to the Crowne Plaza in Warwick, where victims’ families gathered to await information.
“You could tell that there was nothing you could say to give any kind of comfort to them,” he said of the families. “We comforted them the best we could.”
Centracchio said he remembers calling his own children amid the chaos to make sure they were safe, even though he knew none of them were there.
“You’re always concerned that what you see … it could very well be your family,” he said.” That’s exactly what goes into your mind.”
When asked whether he still gets emotional thinking about that night, Centracchio said absolutely.
“I get emotional now because I saw things that I never want to see again,” he said. “Once your experience it, it never goes away.”