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R.I. Club Employees Deal With Guilt

July 28, 2003

WEST WARWICK, R.I. (AP) _ Paul Vanner moves from nightclub to nightclub, setting up sound equipment for concerts benefiting survivors of February’s deadly fire at The Station.

It’s a somber gig, but it helps him honor his four colleagues who were among the 100 people killed in the blaze.

The five months since the fire have been rough for surviving club employees _ some are still out of work, some have faced questioning by criminal investigators, and many say personal relationships are strained with friends and family members who didn’t witness the disaster or hear the screams of victims that night.

``It’s hard for them to understand what happened,″ said bartender Julie Mellini, 35.

So they reach out to each other.

On Thursdays, for example, some of them meet at Kent County Hospital for counseling. Afterward they go to The Cowesett Inn restaurant to continue their group therapy over beers.

``There are a lot of people out there that don’t understand what The Station was all about,″ said Kevin Beese, the club’s manager. ``It was like a family. It was a nightclub, but it had a corner bar feel.″

The one-story, wooden building was destroyed Feb. 20 when a fire, sparked by a band’s pyrotechnic display, raged through The Station, claiming 100 lives and injuring nearly 200 others.

Mellini said she sometimes feels guilty because she escaped the inferno without injuries and her friend, Linda Fisher, who she invited to the club that night, suffered serious burns.

``She’s got grafting from here to here on both arms,″ Mellini said, pointing from her elbow to her wrist. Mellini also faced criticism for taking her tip jar and cash register drawer as she escaped through the kitchen door.

``A bartender is responsible for her drawer. I was just doing my job. I thought we’d be going back into the club once the fire was under control,″ she said.

Mellini, who worked at the club for five years, doesn’t go out as much as she used to but she has made it to group outings at The Cowesett Inn, which is across the street from where The Station once stood.

``At first, I couldn’t be near where it happened. They’d all meet, go over to the site even, I couldn’t do it yet,″ she said. ``But four, five months later, it’s a bit easier.″

Some former employees describe their colleagues like family. Mellini once rented a room from Vanner’s parents. Vanner’s mother celebrated her 70th birthday at The Station.

``I met my husband there too,″ Mellini said.

After their shifts ended, many employees would stay at the club to play pool or battle each other on arcade games.

Beese, 38, comes back to the site frequently to reminisce and walk around the crosses that have been erected as a makeshift memorial.

The former prison guard hasn’t found permanent work yet _ although he has made suggestions on nightclub safety to state officials. Like Vanner, Beese has made a life out of helping at concerts benefiting fire survivors.

Beese is also in the process of organizing an event of his own, with proceeds going to The Station Family Fund, a nonprofit set up to help victims’ families and survivors.

Until permanent jobs come along _ they are both looking for something similar to the jobs they held at The Station _ Vanner and Beese are relying on temporary disability payments and relief funds.

But they aren’t angry at club owners Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, who didn’t carry workers’ compensation insurance, which may have benefited the injured employees.

The Derderians, through their attorneys, declined to be interviewed. But they have kept in touch with their former employees, according to the brothers’ lawyers and Beese. Because of media scrutiny and the state’s ongoing investigation, they declined to reveal details.

The inquiries by the grand jury investigating the fire, including questions about how the club was run, irritate Mellini and Vanner.

``The past isn’t what matters,″ Mellini said. ``It was the pyros that night. That’s it.″

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