WEST WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) — It’s been dubbed the darkest day in Rhode Island’s history.
The devastation of the Station nightclub fire, which took the lives of 100 people and injured more than 200 others, is seared into Father Robert Marciano’s memory.
“I call this Rhode Island’s 9/11,” Marciano said. “It was a day we will never forget.”
“It affected everybody in Rhode Island,” he continued. “If you didn’t know someone, you knew someone who knew someone.”
Marciano, who serves as the chaplain for the Warwick police and fire departments, was one of the first responders who rushed to the West Warwick nightclub the night of Feb. 20, 2003.
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“These were very good people who went to enjoy a night out,” Marciano said. “In an instant, it turned tragic.”
It took Marciano, just like hundreds of other Rhode Islanders, years to come to terms with what had happened.
“I didn’t drive down that street,” he recalled. “I didn’t go to the Cowesett Inn, which was one of my favorite places. If I had to go to West Warwick, I would find another route around it.”
Marciano finally returned to the site after the Station nightclub monument was built.
Now, Marciano feels it’s his duty to remember.
“The pain has turned into more of a healing process for many of us,” Marciano said. “I hope [the pain] never goes away. It’s like when you lose a parent and you miss them every day. I don’t want it to go away.”
“There’s a piece of me that probably died that night in the fire,” he added.
Marciano spoke with dozens of victims’ families, survivors and first responders in the days and years that followed.
“I always tried to focus on hope,” he said. “It is the motto of our state … and while the tragedy enveloped so many people, it has brought out so much good in others.”
Marciano will never forget the moment two young boys walked into the rectory a couple of days after the fire.
“They wanted to know if I had seen [their mom],” Marciano recalled. “They showed me a picture and I said, ‘I did … she was very pretty and she wasn’t burned.'”
“She must have died from smoke inhalation, but she was there,” he continued. “I helped them carry her out.”
Marciano remembers telling the boys: “I know she loved you, and now she’s going to watch over you.”
The Station nightclub fire was not only devastating to victims’ loved ones and survivors, but also the firefighters who worked tirelessly that night to save as many lives as possible.
“They had no regard for their safety,” Marciano recalled. “It was an inferno, and they were right up front pulling people out and carrying people.”
“It was such a tragic event and an overwhelming event that everyone just did what they had to do,” he said. “I remember telling the firefighters, ‘You just earned your entire pay for your whole career … for what you did and the lives you saved.'”
Marciano told 12 News he doesn’t resist talking about the Station nightclub fire because it is an important reminder of the sacrifices first responders make every single day.
“[First responders] provide the blanket of safety we sleep under every night,” he said. “When events like this happen, they’re there.”