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Gina Russo expected Feb. 20, 2003 to be a normal day. She spent the afternoon with her sister and her sister's children, and at 4:30 p.m. she met her fiance, Fred Crisostomi, for dinner at her mother's house. She heard later that Crisostomi told a neighbor that afternoon, "It's a beautiful day to be alive." That night at 11 p.m. — just over six hours later — Crisostomi was one of 100 victims of a fire at The Station nightclub in Warwick.

Russo recounted the story of the nation's fourth-worst fire to students of ENGL 0160: "Journalistic Writing" in Smith-Buonnano 201 last night at 7 p.m.

Crisostomi and Russo, both "great '80s rock enthusiasts," decided to attend a Great White concert at the nightclub at the last minute after missing the movie they had planned to see. Russo described the club, which was over capacity that night, as "body to body and shoulder to shoulder." It was when pyrotechnic displays started going off that the problems began.

"There was nowhere for them to go. They kept hitting the ceiling," Russo said of the fireworks that triggered the blaze. She added that polyurethane foam — a soundproofing, but also highly flammable, material — lined the ceiling.

The couple tried to exit through a nearby door, but the bouncer refused to let them, saying that the door was only for the band's use.

"Fred said, ‘We can't stand here and argue with this man,'" Russo said. "The ceiling was half engulfed by flames."

As other attendees noticed the fire, a "National Geographic animal stampede" began, she continued. Russo's last memory of that night is of Crisostomi putting his hand on the back of her head and pushing her forward.

Russo, who experienced third- and fourth-degree burns on 40 percent of her body, barely survived the fire. After spending 11 weeks in a medically induced coma, she awoke to discover her fiance had died.

"It took a lot of people to talk me out of survivor's guilt," she said. "I really didn't know if I wanted to be around. I wanted Fred back in my life."

But with the help of her family, Russo was able to make something positive out of her experience. She has since resumed working at Rhode Island Hospital and gotten married.

Russo self-published a memoir in 2010 titled, "From the Ashes: Surviving the Station Nightclub Fire." She called the process "incredibly therapeutic," adding that the book has "done more than I ever thought it would do."

Russo, who also works as a counselor for burn survivors at the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors, called it her mission to start support groups for fellow burn survivors to fill what she perceives as a void in the hospital community.

Russo said she plans to lobby before Congress for indoor sprinklers and vowed to take the crowd management program that Rhode Island implemented after the fire occurred "to a higher level." As a result of her work with state officials in past years, bouncers now have to be certified to work at a club.

Audience members listened in horror to Russo's story, frequently asking questions about her emotional recovery.

"I find what she's doing incredibly inspirational," said Visiting Professor of English Tracy Breton, who teaches the class and interviewed Russo for the Providence Journal during its original coverage of the fire.

"I'm in awe," said Chelsea Cross '14 of Russo. "She seems happier than I am."



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