Barbara Howard: Fifteen years ago tonight in West Warwick, Rhode Island, the rock band Great White took to the stage at The Station nightclub. And just as their set was beginning, the band's pyrotechnics spewed sparks, and that ignited flames that started creeping up the walls and onto the ceiling. The club was quickly engulfed in flames. Hundreds were trapped inside. One hundred people died in that fire. Hundreds of others were injured. And among the injured was Gina Russo of Cranston, Rhode Island. She did make it out, but just barely. And Gina is with us on the line now. She joins us from The Station Nightclub Memorial Park in West Warwick. Hi, Gina.
Russo: Hi, how are you?
Howard: I'm fine. So take us back to that night — you originally hadn't even planned to be there?
Russo: No, not at all. My boyfriend and I had a couple of hours on our hands and my parents were watching the kids. And originally we were going to go see a movie, but then it popped up on his computer that Great White was playing here, you know, that night, and [we] decided, let's see if we can come in, and we didn't live far away from there. [It] didn't take us long to get there, and [we] bought our tickets right at the door.
Howard: And you went on inside. Were you close to the stage?
Russo: Right up front.
Howard: How did you get out?
Russo: Well, we tried going out a fire exit that was probably about three or four steps from where we were standing, but there was a bouncer at the door who was refusing to let us out. He kept telling us the door was for the band only. So then our only other option was to go to the main entrance. At that point it just became mass chaos. People realized that this was a real fire, and there were no sprinklers in the building, nothing was putting it out, and everybody else headed to that front door.
Howard: At one point you and your then-fiancé, Fred Crisostomi, you were separated — isn't that right?
Russo: That is. We got separated by the masses, and I think, I don't know if it's when he felt like he was getting sick or losing, short of breath, he had pushed me and screamed "go," and then just shoved me to the front door, and at that time, just realized that everybody else around me was people whose heads were on fire, the ceiling was melting. And then I just prayed for my life at that point and passed out at the front door, and woke up 11 weeks later from a medically-induced coma.
Howard: So somebody must have dragged you out?
Russo: Yeah, to this day I have no memory of it. I have no idea.
Howard: So for a few months you were in a medically-induced coma, and then when you came out of it, did you know what the fate had been of your fiancé, who I understand perished in the fire?
Russo: No, I didn't not until about 13 weeks later. When I first came out of the coma at 11 weeks, I had a trach and I couldn't talk. At that point, the staff and my family were trying to figure out how to tell me. It was about week 12 when they removed the trach and I was able to talk just a little bit, and my sister was with me, and I just whispered, 'Where is he?' And she just kept saying, 'He's not here,' and I said 'Well, okay, what hospital is he in?' And she said, 'No, he passed away, Gina. He never made it out that night.' That just brought on a whole different terror.
Howard: Okay. So the band Great White's tour manager, Daniel Biechele, and The Station's owners, brothers Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, they all faced charges from that fire. But they did reach plea deals, and ... Michael Derderian served less than three years in jail, Biechele served less than two years.
Now during victim impact statements, after the plea deals had been reached, you did speak about how angry you were that the case didn't get to go to trial, but that seems like that would've been so hard, reopening all those ... wounds. Do you still feel like you wish it had gone to trial?
Russo: Yes. Yes. I think that we would have been heard a little bit more and maybe there would have been just a little bit more justice. The amount of time that they served doesn't even come close to what we've had to live through. I mean, over the years, as years have gone on, I have come to terms with things. But way back when, when that was happening, I was pretty angry.
Howard: How about the other families? I know you keep in touch with them since you're the president of The Station Fire Memorial Foundation. Are they coming to terms, or is it still a very open wound for them?
Russo: It's a pretty raw subject, it really is, and it probably will always be. There are some that just cannot move past — you know, groups of people that were not brought to justice, they are never going to move past it. And I, personally, I just can't live my life like that.
Howard: How is your life today?
Russo: You know what, it's really great. I got married ten years ago, I met someone ten years ago. My kids are now adults, they were 6 and 9 when it happened and they are 21 and 24 now, living good lives. My parents are still with me and they're amazed that I live the life that I live. I wrote a book about my ordeal, and I do a lot of public speaking, fire education, we talk about fire sprinklers, how important they are, as well as crowd management programs. It's a busy life, but it's a good one and it's a full one.
Howard: Thank you so much, Gina.
Russo: You're welcome.
Howard: That's Gina Russo. Fifteen years ago this evening she was at The Station nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island when that fire broke out. Her fiancé was among the 100 people who died. Gina Russo made it out.