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Theresa O'Toole

Helping survivors of the Station nightclub fire

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When sparks from the pyrotechnics turned into flames that began to lick the wall, Theresa O'Toole looked around expecting someone to leap into action. But the band, Great White, kept playing, and the crowd just stared as the fire grew more intense. O'Toole screamed at her then-husband Todd King over the music, "We have to get out of here!" A crush of panic-stricken concertgoers followed them to the door, but the couple eventually walked out uninjured. Five years ago this month, they watched the Station nightclub burn and black smoke fill the sky over West Warwick, R.I.

O'Toole says she didn't know anyone else at the show that night, but since then, she's come to know many of them. O'Toole, who now lives in Durham, and King, who lives in Apex, helped found the Station Family Fund, a nonprofit that raises and distributes money to families of the 100 who died and 200 who were injured. A federal lawsuit against the nightclub and other defendants remains unresolved, and with little support from state or federal agencies, families continue to struggle financially. The group held a benefit concert Feb. 25 in Providence that featured a mix of metal, country and other acts including Twisted Sister, Stryper and North Carolina American Idol contestant Kellie Pickler.

What inspired you to start this fund?

There was an article three months after the fire about a woman who had just gotten out of the hospital. Because she hadn't been around for three months, nobody was paying her bills, and she was being evicted. She had no place to turn; there was no organization, nothing set up to help her. We just decided that we couldn't let something like that happen to anybody else. What they had gone through was bad enough.

Tell me about the people you help.

A lot of these people are living on a very fixed income, so whenever there's an added financial burden, it puts people over that edge. There are situations where a spouse might have died, so they've lost a second income. There are several people who can't work, some can only work part time, and some will never be able to work again because they've suffered lung damage or because burns have affected their ability to move their hands; one woman lost her hand. They're collecting Social Security, but because they're younger, the amount they're getting is fairly low.

When we started having financial issues recently, the fund decided to focus solely on medical needs, helping with co-pays and sending people to therapy. That was one thing we didn't want people to lose. We're hoping to bring in financial planners and therapists and really sit down with each person and get a sense of what the situation is and how they can best be helped.

Are there any survivors whose lives have turned out well?

Yes, a woman named Gina Russo. She was told she wouldn't survive. She spent a month in the hospital, and they were surprised she could even walk out the door. She lost her fiancé in the fire. She has limited movement in her hands; she lost an ear; she doesn't have hair anymore. We helped her at the beginning when she had trouble paying her bills. But now, she helps us out. If people want to talk to a survivor, she's always there for us. She attends the events if she can. She's working, and she bought a house recently and got married. She's just an amazing, positive person. She's just so happy to be alive.

Is there anything local readers should know?

Even down here, I go into small clubs, and it's still scary because there are no sprinklers in them, or the doors aren't very visible, or there's one door. It's something everybody needs to be aware of. A lot of people never think something like that can happen to you, and the reality is, it can.

For more information about the Station Family Fund, visit www.stationfamilyfund.org.

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