IT WAS A small twist of fate that brought 33-year-old Donovan Williams to the Station nightclub in West Warwick on the night of February 20, 2003.
Although Williams had previously seen Great White, the headliner for the show, he didnít consider himself a fan. Recently divorced, the father of three was spending "a boring night up in Providence," and he decided to head out that Thursday at about 10:30 p.m. Nothing seemed amiss or unusual as he parked his car and entered the club solo, after a friend backed out, paid the cover charge, and took up a spot near the sound board. "It was packed, but it seems like Iíve seen it busier before," Williams recalls.
Arriving just before 11, Williams, a Westerly native who worked with digital graphics at Graphic Innovations in Providence, was just in time for Great Whiteís show. When a string of devices known as gerbs shot a spray of sparks high into the low ceiling of the Station, an old roadhouse that dated to the í40s, "my first thought was Iíd never seen them use pyros before," Williams says. "I thought that was weird."
Like many of the more than 300 people in the club that night, Williams thought the small fire that crept up the wall behind Great White would get quickly doused. Aided by cheap foam soundproofing, however, it just continued to spread. Once the fire alarm went off, Williams headed for the front door, almost making it out before becoming stuck in the pile of people trying to escape from what had quickly become a deathtrap. "It was kind of like a blur to me," he says. "I remember thinking to myself something bad was happening, and I couldnít believe this was how I was going to die."
After blacking out with the belief that he could he hear his hair burning, Williams says, he remembers waking up to the feeling that water was on his head. He stuck his right arm out and someone ó he doesnít know to this day who it was ó pulled him out. He walked through the parking lot after being hosed down with water, facing the front of the burning nightclub, and screaming about how more people were trapped inside. Williams was naked except for the shoes on his feet. Finding his way into an ambulance a short time later, he realized that skin was hanging off his arms. Although heís not sure where he was transported, Williams was brought to a Rhode Island hospital. He recalls a doctor saying that he had been burned on 75 percent of his body and would need to be transferred by helicopter elsewhere, to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Williams, who went into the night as a healthy young man, lapsed into a medically induced coma, his chances of survival placed at less than even.
AFTER REGAINING consciousness in April 2003, on the day before Easter, Williams speaks with a voice confident and without a trace of self-pity. Heís living with his sister, her husband, and their three teenage daughters in Westerly, continuing the lengthy process of physical therapy, and seemingly hoping for the best.
Williamsís injuries from the fire left his hands gnarled, although he can use his right one, for example, to remove a bottle cap. He lost 45 pounds while being in the hospitable. The fire also left him blind in his right eye, and although vision in his left eye has improved to the extent that he can navigate on foot, he canít read or decipher a computer screen. These injuries pose questions about when heíll be able to return to work and what heíll be able to do. His former line in digital graphics seems out of the question. Williams, who has appeared on Arlene Violetís WHJJ-AM radio show, says he is considering studying broadcasting.
Williams also helps with the Station Family Fund (www.stationfamilyfund.org), which stages periodic benefits to help the families of fire victims meet their financial needs. Although the nonprofit organization has succeeded in meeting its own monetary demands, the need for additional fundraisers is constant and ongoing. "The Station Family Fund has got to struggle every month," he says. "There are a lot of people on their own [without someone to help care for them]. Thatís the need for the fund."
The Westerly native was fortunate in that he had Blue Cross & Blue Shield insurance through his employer that has completely paid the costs of his medical care, including his physical therapy. Williams puts the tab for one of his first hospital bills in the millions. With a hint of understatement, he says, "Itís a good thing I had insurance."
Not surprisingly, Williams, who is included in a current Rolling Stone story on the plight of Station fire survivors, finds it difficult to explain his outlook on life in the aftermath of the gruesome fire.
On one hand, his ability to enjoy life ó to drive, to work, to see the faces of his kids, ages nine, eight, and three (who live with his ex-wife in Coventry) ó has been damaged, and as he plainly states, "That sucks." On the other hand, Williams adds, "My kids are happy, and they still see me as dad to them." The routine concerns that people get worked up about seem trivial, so, "Now, I donít have any stress."
"Dying a little, almost dying or being closer to dying, makes you appreciate life more," Williams says, citing the joy he gets from playfully wrestling with his youngest child. "Iím generally happy. I know a lot of people who werenít injured and have wicked survivor guilt. I was so severely injured, itís kind of like I never had nightmares or things like that. I got the physical damage, not the mental damage. It sucks that it happened, but I guess stuff happens for a reason."
Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis[a]phx.com.
Issue Date: February 20 - 26, 2004
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