| A mourner holds a picture of a friend who died at The Station nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island. (AFP)
West Warwick (Rhode Island), Feb. 22 (Reuters): With forensic teams called in from around the US, experts laboured today to identify victims of an inferno and stampede at a Rhode Island nightclub that killed at least 96 people and injured more than 180.
As the grim task of attaching names to charred bodies continued, with only nine identified by early today, police and federal agents worked to ascertain who was responsible for the blaze, set off by a pyrotechnics display at The Station nightclub on Thursday night at the start of a rock show.
Some 20 state police detectives were conducting interviews of survivors and people from the area, while a similar number of federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms helped comb through the club’s burned-out remains. It was one of the worst nightclub disasters ever in the United States.
The fire was ignited when pyrotechnics were touched off as the heavy metal band Great White kicked off their set. Video footage taken from inside the club showed sparks from the band’s special effects igniting the fast-moving fire, which prompted a stampede toward the exits by panicked fans.
In dispute is whether the band requested permission for the display, and if it did, if the club’s owners indeed authorised it, authorities said.
Fireworks were not allowed in The Station, fire officials say. The club’s owners and the band’s management, meanwhile, have traded accusations over the tragedy.
Rhode Island Gov. Donald Carcieri, mingling with investigators and journalists, said: “Clearly, there shouldn’t have been fireworks in there. Somebody made a very, very bad decision, and it lost a lot of people their lives.”
Investigators were also probing whether the club’s capacity of 300 was exceeded.
Carcieri said it appeared that it had.
“When you take the 187 that were put into hospitals and the 80 who came forward to say they were there and the 96 dead, I come up with around 350,” Carcieri told reporters at a news conference where many of his staffers choked back tears.
At the club in downtown West Warwick, authorities today escorted mourners past the blackened wreckage of the building that housed the club. People walked along a police cordon depositing flowers at a makeshift memorial on a rainy, chilly New England day, near mounds of dirty, soot-stained snow from the recent blizzard.
At the Crowne Plaza hotel, where families of the victims have been gathering, people were silently milling around with stickers on their clothes bearing the name of someone missing, awaiting for information and lending a bizarre quality to an otherwise somber atmosphere.
Counsellors with the American Red Cross, the clergy and health officials mingled among the people. Just outside the hotel stood Shelly Gates, whose sticker bore the name of clubgoer Eddie Corbett, 31, her nephew.
“We haven’t heard from him since Thursday night. We have no further information, and now fear the worst,” she said, tears welling in her eyes as she clutched a white stuffed animal.