Memories sear survivor of fire that killed 100 in 2003

Local musician was in club when 100 died in 2003

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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RIDGEFIELD — As John Reagle relaxed with a beer and burger before his band took the stage, he looked up at the ceiling of the night club.

It was kind of a habit for the rock 'n' roll drummer. Reagle was looking for sprinkler heads in the ceiling ... and there weren't any.

It became a life-or-death issue on Feb. 20, 2003, when 100 people died in a nightclub fire.

The roadhouse in Rhode Island was part of a national concert tour for Great White and Trip, Reagle's Vancouver-based band. The night ended in tragedy when Great White's pyrotechnics display set the club ablaze.

On Tuesday, the Ridgefield man discussed surviving the fire while living with the memories of what he saw 10 years ago.

"A shrink told me that I'll live with it for the rest of my life. I'd feel down on myself for not doing more, and that's the human way," Reagle said.

"It used to be that I'd hear a siren and I'd break down and bawl," Reagle said. "There are still the dreams. We don't have control of our dreams."

"He'll wake up screaming," noted his daughter, Angela Reagle.

Why?

"I'd wake up seeing people on fire," Reagle said. "I want to help, but I couldn't. It's like I cheated them. But I would have died myself."

Reagle's bandmates were guitarist/lead singer Michael Shapiro and bass player Jason Williams.

Williams died a couple of years ago in a tree-topping accident. Shapiro now lives in California, so the 57-year-old drummer is playing with a new group, Rex & the Rockits.

Reagle had worked with Williams before, in a completely different setting. It was a demolition crew, and that's when Reagle learned to keep an eye out for sprinkler heads.

If you're tearing a room down and hit a sprinkler head by mistake, you can set it off. And that's just the start, Reagle explained: "All of them in a series can go off."

Reagle and Williams took their professional partnership another direction when Trip was invited to tour with Great White.

"We met them in Chicago. Our first gig was the House of Blues -- 1,850 people. Three guys looked pretty small on that stage."

Trip played original music, Reagle said, written by Shapiro.

"It was middle-of-the-road rock 'n' roll. We had to slam out a CD for the merchandising booth, with T-shirts and Great White stuff."

There were advance sales of the CDs, so some concert-goers would already know their music when Trip performed.

"They were mouthing the lyrics. How'd they know our songs?"

'Please don't let me die'

Then came the performance at The Station, in West Warwick, R.I. As usual, a local band opened the show, followed by Trip. Then came Great White, and as usual, Reagle stood off to the side to watch the headliners.

Almost 460 people were packed in the club when the pyrotechnics display went awry.

"I saw sparks go off to the side and thought that was odd; I'd never seen that before," Reagle said. It ignited packing foam that had been used to soundproof the walls.

As flames erupted, Reagle looked for the backstage door that the musicians had used to bring in their instruments. All the musicians went out the back door, Reagle said -- all except Great White guitarist Ty Longley, who died in the fire.

On his way out, Reagle heard someone say, "Please don't let me die." Just behind him was a badly burned man whose shirt was on fire.

"I put him over my shoulder and put him down in the snow." And he heard a sizzling sound.

"I don't know if he lived or not," Reagle said.

There were so many more people he remembers, some with their faces pressed up against a window. The window finally shattered and people spilled through — some burned, some sliced up by the broken glass.

Others continued to try to escape through the backstage door.

"A lady on fire was crawling toward me, trying to talk. That freaked me out," Reagle said. "I couldn't do anything. The fire was so hot."

Eventually, the band members were hustled into a command center, quickly interviewed by investigators and advised to leave as soon as possible.

"We didn't have anything to do with the fire," Reagle said, but if any of the survivors wanted to hold somebody accountable for the tragedy, they might not care which musician played for what band.

Wary of returning

That actually crossed Reagle's mind in 2008 when the Trip members returned to West Warwick for a fifth-anniversary commemoration.

"I was a little apprehensive. We didn't know if people still had animosities."

It turned into a chance to catch up with some friends. Reagle, Shapiro and Williams stayed with Bill Long, who'd been Trip's manager. While Long was hospitalized for burns, he met a woman and decided to stay in the Rhode Island area.

At one point during an event, a familiar voice called Reagle's name.

"I heard, 'John! We didn't know if you made it or not.' It was a lady who had worked at the merchandise booth. I turned to give her a hug, and I didn't recognize her. Her face was totally different."

The woman had been badly burned, Reagle realized.

"She said, 'It's OK. I'm used to it."

A 10th anniversary update of the disaster reported that lawsuits related to the fire have been settled for a total of $176 million. Reagle said he's had chances to pursue legal action, thanks to law firms that tracked him down.

"I got those 'You are eligible for compensation' papers," he said. "I threw them in the garbage."

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558; http://www.twitter.com/col_history;tom.vogt@columbian.com.