Thursday, February 21, 2013

A sad anniversary

This is an anniversary that I wish had never happened, and I didn't have to remember.

Today is the tenth anniversary of the Rhode Island nightclub fire.

Chances are this has passed in many people's minds, a victim of the endless string of tragedies, conflicts, fighting, brutality and evil that seem to mark each passing day in our world.

I don't know much about those events, because I wasn't there. But I do know about the nightclub fire, because I was there, covering it for the AP. I was at Rhode Island hospital in the raw chill of the early morning, where many of the victims had been taken and where many families had come, wondering if their sons, daughters or loved ones were alive.

I was there to find some of those victims and their families and to interview them about what happened and how they felt in the frantic, chaotic hours after the fire. It was by far the most difficult assignment I have ever had.

The first people I met were an older couple, Doug and Barbara Magness. They were more than gracious as I approached them and awkwardly explained that I was looking for people affected by the fire. They listened, and invited me to come to their home.

I wrote dozens of stories in the months and years following the fire. Most were about legal skirmishes, court rulings and other matters that seem trivial now. But the ones that stand out, that are meaningful, in my view, are the ones that put a face on that awful night. These are the stories, and the people, that I remember.

I remember the Magnesses and their emotions, so genuine and raw, as we sat in their kitchen, and they described to me what it's like to lose your only child and daughter in law. Their story.

I remember George Solitro, who wept as we sat in a bar, and he described what it was like to lose his best friend in the fire. I remember Andrea Stewart, who talked about losing best friends and coworkers in the fire. I remember Melanie Fontaine, who lost her brother and fiance in the fire. Their stories.

I remember Michelle Spence, who allowed me to follow her for a year as she recovered, haltingly, from her injuries from the fire. One of her stories.

I remember the fire, and I remember the people. Please do, too.

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