A chain-link fence surrounds the site of a nightclub fire Monday, June 29, 2015, where 100 people died in February 2003 in West Warwick, R.I. A building permit has been approved for construction of a permanent memorial at the site. The memorial is projected for completion in three phases by next spring. (AP Photo/Michelle R. Smith)
WEST WARWICK, Rhode Island — The first phase of construction for a scaled-down memorial at the site of a nightclub fire that killed 100 people is set to begin, and the head of the nonprofit group that has worked for years to build it says it expects to complete it by the spring.
The Feb. 20, 2003, fire was sparked by pyrotechnics for the band Great White that set fire to flammable foam lining the inside of The Station nightclub in West Warwick. More than 200 people were injured.
Gina Russo, president of the Station Fire Memorial Foundation, said the group has received its building permit from the town and is moving ahead with the first of three phases. The group is still working to raise the money it needs to build the memorial and establish a fund to maintain it, but Russo says she's not worried.
"Our construction managers are very confident that the money is going to be there," Russo said.
The site has been closed off to the public for more than a year as work went on to prepare it and get all the necessary permits. First came a chain link fence, then came the removal of handmade wooden crosses and other mementos left as part of a makeshift memorial. The items were put into storage and will be buried in a vault under a parking lot.
Wildflowers now cover the place where the club burned down.
The design for the memorial was released on the 10th anniversary of the fire, but a 30-foot-tall harp that was to have been built at the entrance had to be removed from the final plan, Russo said.
"It was too costly," she said. "We could not take the chance."
Paula McLaughlin's brother and sister-in-law, Michael and Sandy Hoogasian, died in the fire.
McLaughlin, a jewelry designer, said she had been excited about the harp but realized it made sense to let it go due to the expense and liability issues. She said the new plan is basically the same but more refined, and she's excited to see the vision become a reality in the spring.
"It's not a what-if anymore," she said Monday. "It's something to look forward to."
The first task is to clear brush from the site. Then the group can level the land where the memorial will be built by bringing in clean soil. The group has pledged not to dig on the part of the site where the club stood so human remains won't be disturbed.
It also will begin laying the groundwork for an electrical system and digging in the parking lot for the underground vault, Russo said.
Phase two will include landscaping, installing a lighting system and starting work on an open-air gazebo. Russo said monuments would be installed in the spring in phase three.
The foundation has been working to raise $2 million and has about $300,000 in the bank, Russo said. She estimates it has received $500,000 to $600,000 in donations of materials and labor.
The group has run a variety of events over the years to raise money for the project. Last week, Russo sent a letter to all the fire chiefs in Rhode Island challenging them to run fill-the-boot fundraisers for the memorial. She was inspired by the Lime Rock Fire Department in Lincoln, which raised $11,600 in a recent campaign.