WEST WARWICK, R.I. (AP) _ A nightclub erupted in a raging fire during a rock band's pyrotechnics display, killing at least 86 people and injuring more than 180 others as frantic mobs rushed to escape. Club officials said Friday the special effects were used without permission.
The death toll rose as firefighters searched through the charred shell of the single-story wood building. Gov. Don Carcieri said the number of dead had reached 86 by Friday afternoon and rescue crews had identified ``pockets'' in the rubble where they expected to find more bodies.
``We believe that number is going to go higher. How much higher, we don't know,'' said Carcieri, who rushed back to the state from a Florida vacation. ``This building went up fast _ nobody had a chance.''
It was the deadliest U.S. fire since 87 people died at the Happy Land Social Club in New York in 1990, a fire authorities blamed on arson. It also came less than a week after 21 people were killed in a stampede at a Chicago nightspot.
The '80s hard rock band Great White had just started playing Thursday night when giant pyrotechnic sparklers on stage began shooting up and ignited the ceiling above them and soundproofing near the stage. Some in the crowd said they thought it was part of the act, but the fire quickly spread through the low-ceilinged building, filling it with thick, black smoke.
The entire club was engulfed in flames within three minutes, Fire Chief Charles Hall said. Capacity at The Station Concert Club was 300, but Hall said fewer people than that were inside the building.
Robin Petrarca, 44, was standing within a few feet of a door, but said she couldn't see the exit because of the billowing smoke. In the rush to escape, she fell and was trampled, but made it out.
``There was nothing they could do, it went up so fast,'' she said.
Hall said the club recently passed a fire inspection, but didn't have a city permit for pyrotechnics. The building, which is at least 60 years old, was not required to have a sprinkler system because of its small size.
State officials said they had started an investigation and state police had spoken to band members.
The pyrotechnics were used without permission from the club, said Kathleen Hagerty, a lawyer representing club owners Michael and Jeffrey Derderian.
``No permission was ever requested by the band or its agents to use pyrotechnics at The Station, and no permission was ever given,'' she said.
The band's singer, Jack Russell, said the manager checked with the club before the show and the use of pyrotechnics was approved. And Paul Woolnough, president of Great White's management company, said tour manager Dan Biechele ``always checks'' with club officials before pyrotechnics are used.
``I'm not going to reply to those allegations, but I do know that the club would have been informed, as they always are,'' Woolnough said. Biechele could not immediately be located for comment.
The owner of a well-known New Jersey nightclub said Great White failed to tell him they were using pyrotechnics for a concert there a week ago.
``Our stage manager didn't even know it until it was done,'' said Domenic Santana, owner of the Stone Pony in Asbury Park. ``My sound man freaked out because of the heat and everything, and they jeopardized the health and the safety of our patrons.''
Most of the bodies were found near The Station's front exit, some of them burned and others dead from smoke inhalation. Hall also said some appeared to have been trampled in the rush to escape.
``They tried to go out the same way they came in. That was the problem,'' Hall said. ``They didn't use the other three fire exits.''
Many of the injured were taken to Rhode Island Hospital. The governor said at least 25 people were in critical condition at state hospitals with severe burns and suffering from smoke inhalation.
The ages of the victims ranged from the teens to the late 30s.
``As much as we can prepare for anything like this the stark reality is hard to imagine,'' said Dr. Joseph Amaral, a surgeon and president of Rhode Island Hospital. ``One of the most remarkable things for me is the degree of inhalation injuries that everyone sustained.''
The blaze broke out at about 11 p.m. during the first song at the concert in West Warwick, about 15 miles southwest of Providence.
``All of a sudden I felt a lot of heat,'' said Russell, the band's singer. ``I see the foam's on fire. ... The next thing you know the whole place is in flames.''
He said he started dousing the fire with a water bottle but couldn't put it out, then all the lights went out.
``I just couldn't believe how fast it went up,'' he said. Russell said one of his band members, guitarist Ty Longley, was among the missing.
Firefighters worked through the morning Friday to pull charred bodies from the building as onlookers watched, worried about missing friends.
``They were completely burned. They had pieces of flesh falling off them,'' said Michelle Craine, who was waiting to hear about a friend who was missing. ``It was the worst thing I've ever seen.''
Nearly 200 people gathered at a family center set up at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Warwick by the American Red Cross of Rhode Island. Grief counselors and clergy members were on hand.
Witnesses described seeing dozens of people dash toward for the door after the fire began, and some of those who escaped were later seen staggering into a triage center. Rescuers pulled badly injured victims from the fire as ladder trucks poured water over the flaming skeleton of the building.
``It was calm at first, everyone thought it was part of the act,'' said John DiMeo, who was sitting at the bar near the front door when the fire started. ``It happened so fast.''
Brian Butler was filming the concert for WPRI-TV and saw the flames spread across the ceiling and people rush for the doors.
``People were trying to help others and people were smashing out windows, and people were pulling on people and nobody cared how many cuts they got, nobody cared about the bruises or the burns,'' Butler said. ``They just wanted out of the building.''
The club had passed a fire code compliance inspection Dec. 31 to get its liquor license renewed, Hall said. He said sprinklers were not required because of the building's size, but a license would have been required for the pyrotechnic display.
Great White is a heavy metal band whose hits include ``Once Bitten, Twice Shy'' and ``Rock Me.'' The band emerged in the Los Angeles metal scene of the late 1980s, selling 6 million albums and earning a Grammy nomination in 1990.
They continued to tour and make albums in recent years, maintaining a strong allegiance of fans from their glory days of the 1980s.
It was the second tragedy at a U.S. club in four days. Early Monday, 21 people were killed and more than 50 were injured in the Chicago melee, which began after a security guard used pepper spray to break up a fight.
The worst nightclub fire in the United States was Nov. 28, 1942, when 491 people died at Boston's Cocoanut Grove nightclub.