WEST WARWICK, R.I., Feb. 21 (UPI) -- The death toll in a Rhode Island nightclub fire has increased to 75 and may go higher, and the question of blame was being raised, Gov. Don Carcieri said Friday.
The fire was apparently sparked by a rock band's pyrotechnics during a Thursday night concert in a West Warwick, R.I., club known as The Station.
More than 160 people were injured, some two dozen critically, as panicked concertgoers stampeded and jammed exits trying to flee the thick smoke and flames at the popular concert hall.
"This shouldn't have happened," Carcieri said after returning to the state from Florida and viewing the scene. "Somebody made a bad decision" in allowing pyrotechnics to be used in so small a building.
Jack Russell, the lead singer of the band Great White, told reporters he had permission from club managers to use pyrotechnics, but the owners in a statement Friday denied permission had been asked for or granted.
"Nobody had a chance," Carcieri told reporters.
"We're all shocked, deeply, deeply saddened that something like this happened. It defies words. You cannot describe the sadness of something like this, the impact on families, and it didn't need to be."
The governor said searchers were combing through the ashes and said the death toll "may be higher."
"We're in a long process now trying to identify" the victims, the governor said.
The Red Cross said families would be notified as identities are confirmed.
Town Manager Wolfgang Bauer said the death toll continued to mount as firefighters found more bodies in the smoldering rubble.
"I saw people on the ground, getting stomped on, basically," said one young man who escaped. Another said people were jumping from the building, some in flames.
People were pushing, trying to get out the exits and windows, witnesses said. Nearly 300 people were inside at the time, officials said.
Video showed people jammed up at the front door, screaming for help as black smoke billowed out behind them.
Others outside were pulling at outreaching arms, trying to help them escape. Some fled through windows. Many with burned hands stuck them into the snow.
The fire broke out during a pyrotechnic display at the start of the concert by the rock band Great White, best known for its hit song "Once Bitten, Twice Shy."
"This place went up like the Fourth of July," said Russell, who was helped to safety by security personnel.
"I just couldn't believe how fast it went up," Russell said.
He said his guitar player, Ty Longley, was missing.
"We're still looking for him," Russell said. "That's my main concern right now, to find him."
A WPRI-TV cameraman captured the scene inside as the band began its set. The video showed sparks flying behind the band, flames spreading up the side walls and along the ceiling as smoke began to fill the hall.
WPRI cameraman Brian Butler said some people yelled, "Yah! That's great!" when the fire began. "They thought it was part of the show," he said.
Fire Chief Charles Hall said the building was engulfed in flames within three minutes.
"A majority" of the dead were jammed at the front door, Hall said. Other dead were at a rear exit and on the dance floor, he said.
Hall said as far as he knew there was no license for pyrotechnics at the club. Russell said he understood that managers of the club had a permit.
Russell described the pyrotechnics as "sparklers," and that he'd never felt any heat from them during previous concerts.
Hall said there were no sprinklers in the building, but none were required because of the relatively small size of the structure.
Patron Linda Ormerod of Providence, R.I., saw the fire start and headed for the exit with her boyfriend.
"It was like a stampede. I really thought that was it for me. Everything went black," she said.
Someone "kicked out a window, I was hanging out the window, and then somebody threw me out," Ormerod said. "It was the most horrible thing I've ever been through.
"People were screaming, 'Help me, help me,' and I was screaming 'Help me' myself."
Another survivor said a "big man pulled me out. I owe him my life."
Relatives of the victims and the missing gathered at the nearby Crowne Plaza hotel as the process to identify the dead and injured got under way.
A fire official at the scene told the Providence Journal that bodies were "stacked like cordwood" near the front door of the hall.
Local authorities requested help from area rescue squads to remove the injured to hospitals. Shuttle buses and transit authority buses were also used to take some people to hospitals.
Some 160 people were being treated for various degrees of burns and smoke inhalation. Eleven of the most seriously injured were flown to the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and the adjacent Shriner Burn Center.
The fire broke out about 11 p.m. at The Station, a regular site for rock band appearances in the town near Providence. Thursday's concert was to feature Great White, a Los Angeles heavy metal/hard rock band that often uses special fireworks in its act. One patron described the effect as a "sparkler."
Russell said he realized something was wrong when he felt heat on his back. When he saw the flames he assumed someone would come up on stage and put it out with a fire extinguisher, but no one did.
"I was trying to put it out with a bottle of water. I felt heat on my back," Russell said. "I turned around and the building was engulfed. My soundman is injured. I'm on my way to the hospital. I'm missing my guitar player."
"Rock and roll will never be the same for me again," Russell said.
Witnesses spoke of how fast the fire spread and about people "scratching and clawing" to get out. The fire was declared under control by 12:45 a.m. Friday.
Video of the incident showed the fire igniting behind the stage as Great White began its act. A stage technician told a local television station that soundproofing material caught fire.
The technician, Paul Vanner, told WPRI-TV the pyrotechnics "looked like a great effect, but it was way too much."
Russell said he had permission from club officials to use the pyrotechnics, but Fire Chief Hall said the town had no record of a permit.
The owners, Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, issued a statement Friday through their lawyer. It said: "At no time did either owner have prior knowledge that pyrotechnics were going to be used by the band Great White. No permission was ever requested by the band or its agents to use pyrotechnics at The Station, and no permission was even given."
Vanner said that many local musicians were in attendance to see Great White. He said many people he personally knew were missing. Vanner, who worked for The Station for about three years, estimated that there were about 325 people in the club for the concert.
Hall said the hall had a maximum capacity limit of 300 for a concert, but that there were fewer than that number in attendance when the fire broke out.
Hall said there were four fire exits, but most patrons tried to get out the front.
The fact that many of those killed were found near a door was reminiscent of a melee Monday in a Chicago nightclub in which 21 people died. Most of those victims died as a crush of people tried to get out of the building after a security guard sprayed mace to try to break up a fight among several women.
The West Warwick fire is the worst in Rhode Island history terms of number killed. Ten women died in a Dec. 13, 1977, dormitory fire at Providence College.
It was the worst fire in the United States since more than 80 people died when federal authorities raided the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, on Feb. 28, 1993.
The worst fatal nightclub fire in New England and the nation at the time was at the Coconut Grove in Boston on Nov. 28, 1942, when 492 people died.
"I'm not sure New England has seen anything like this since the Cocoanut Grove fire," said Dr. Joseph Amaral of the Rhode Island Hospital in Providence, where dozens of victims were taken.
(Reported by David D. Haskell in Boston and John Hendel in Washington)