May 07

The Station Fire Survivors: Tattoos and Other Memories

I believe it’s entirely possible that everyone in our nation’s smallest state of Rhode Island, where I live, knows someone—or knows of someone—who perished in The Station nightclub fire in 2003 or who are Station fire survivors or who were first responders or doctors or nurses or therapists who treated someone…or…or…or.

The fourth deadliest nightclub fire in the U.S. ever, 100 people lost their lives. And many more didn’t—but are no doubt scarred in some way or in all ways possible from the experience.

Words Don’t Do It Justice

When the tenth anniversary of The Station fire was observed this past February, I was fortunate to be invited to the opening of a special commemoration—a beautiful and touching photographic exhibit called Station Ink.

Station Ink is a “tattoo memorial” that was organized by a friend-of-a-friend, Paula McLaughlin. Her brother and his wife, Michael and Sandy Hoogasian, both died in the blaze.

Michael, a lover of tattoos, was getting one that day when Jack Russell, lead singer of the band Great White, invited everyone in the shop to come to their concert that night at The Station.

It was about a year following her devastating loss that Paula had the idea for this exhibit—but wasn’t ready for it emotionally. It wasn’t until years later that she got there.

Over 60 people were photographed displaying their body art—tattoos they’d gotten since the fire in order to honor loved ones, including themselves. Accompanying the photos were pertinent stories behind their choices.

The photos, taken by John Pitocco, are available to see online at the Station Ink website (click on “Galleries“).

Words Are Her Therapy

One of the Station Fire survivors, Gina Russo, a mother of two, suffered severe burns, sustained serious injuries, and lost her fiance Fred that night.

From the Ashes, co-authored by Paul Lonardo, is Russo’s inspiring book, recently recommended to me by an acquaintance of hers. Although mostly about Russo’s own immense struggles and recovery post-fire, it includes material about others who’ve also suffered, including her family, other patients she met while in the hospital, concert attendees who’ve experienced survivor guilt, first-responders who can’t get over not being able to do more, etc.

As a therapist, I was dismayed by Russo’s lack of success at finding an effective counselor. About eight months after the fire, she writes that the therapist she had just met “giggled incessantly throughout our first session. Every time I told her something that related to the fire she would literally giggle.” Wisely, Russo moved on.

A couple years later: “A friend of mine recommended someone to me, and during our second session the therapist started crying, overwhelmed by my story. That was it for me. I was done with therapy forever. How can these people help me, I wondered. One giggles, one cries. I don’t know who needed therapy more, me or them.”

Whether or not she’s ever tried again, she’s come far in her recovery, including getting remarried. And Russo’s clearly found other therapeutic avenues, including public speaking and, of course, telling her powerful story via the book.