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Fire Victim Rages at Life's Caprice

Six months after the R.I. nightclub tragedy, Michelle Spence struggles to cope with physical and emotional scars, plus tight finances.

September 21, 2003|Richard C. Lewis | Associated Press Writer

LINCOLN, R.I. — Michelle Spence, burned and debilitated in a Rhode Island nightclub fire that killed 100 people, finally felt good enough to see the rock band Poison recently.

Her daughter, 10, however, was hysterical. Hailey was terrified that her mother would get hurt again. Maybe she'd die in a blaze like the one in February that burned the Station nightclub to the ground, Hailey thought.

So, every few minutes, Hailey called her mother and left a message on her cell phone. "Mommy, give me a call," Hailey said. "I want to make sure you're OK."

Spence shakes her head at how her daughter has changed. When she goes out now, Hailey calls. And cries. And begs for her mommy to return, where it's safe and there won't be any fires.

"She was never like that before," Spence says. "Never."

Six months after the Station fire, Spence, 29, her daughter and the entire family are on the edge. Money is tight. Outside support is little, and temporary.

The family -- Spence's two sisters, their mother, Spence and her daughter -- share a two-bedroom apartment in Lincoln rented by Spence's sister, Tammy St. Hilaire, the only one working.

The mother, Wanda St. Hilaire, 49, tries to care for them all. She returned to work in April, but couldn't cope. She was waiting tables at a restaurant where Tammy works -- the same place Spence worked before the fire. But Wanda was forgetful. She'd start crying, and she couldn't deal with questions from customers. She left after one month.

"I try to stay strong for a while," she says. "But ... the reality's starting to hit me now, and you feel as if you're falling apart. You try to cope with it, but then you don't know how to."

Spence is at the center of the family's plight. She suffered severe burns to her hands and arms. Much of her upper torso was scorched in the fire. Tammy St. Hilaire escaped unharmed, but has been racked with guilt about Spence's injuries and the deaths of some close friends.

Spence's scars are red, coarse ropes that run the length of her arms. Her hands are a pinkish red, with deep creases. She has reddish flares on her forehead and around her nose, making her look flushed, except they're shiny and crinkly like Saran wrap. Her head, burned by flaming foam that dropped from the ceiling, has two half-dollar-sized patches in the front and back where hair likely will never regrow. She bought a reddish-brown wig after being mistaken for a guy.

"I feel better when I go out and I have that on," Spence says.

Wanda St. Hilaire believes her daughter fears rejection: "I think she just needs to be more open about it, let the world know, 'I'm strong, I made it.' "

Spence says she has strengthened her damaged tendons and nerves. She can brush her teeth and make the bed, but she still can't lift a pot of coffee. She's not ready to work again; she has no car, anyway.

Spence was going to physical therapy until June, when she decided to stop. "I was able to use my arms pretty good on my own and I didn't feel like I needed to do it anymore," she said.

Therapist Lois Holmes said Spence missed two appointments and ignored pleas to restart. "But as a social worker told me, 'You can't save them all.' There's only so much we can do."

Spence is tormented by anger. She's mad at the band Great White, whose pyrotechnics sparked the blaze that destroyed the one-story wooden nightclub. Her anger escalated to hatred when she learned the 1980s rockers were touring nationwide to raise funds for the victims.

"It's pretty strange how you can idolize somebody, and the next night [after the fire] just hate them," Spence said. "That's just weird to me."

Yet there it is: The band that she and her sister once adored has become their sworn enemy.

She's bitter at the club's owners for installing cheap foam that may have accelerated the fire, and at the West Warwick building inspector for possibly failing to notice.

"Maybe anger is not the best feeling to have, that maybe it's holding me down somewhat," says Spence, who has joined at least a dozen others in a federal lawsuit seeking compensation from the club owners, the town where the fire occurred, the state and others -- but not Great White, on the theory that it has no money to pay a judgment. "But right now, [anger is] the only thing that ... makes me have any kind of emotion."

Recently, her cousin, Tyler, suggested she see Great White. "You've got to get all that anger out of you," Spence remembers Tyler telling her. "Well, it's not going to go anywhere anytime soon. Sorry," she retorted.

Her mother doesn't know whether Spence will ever overcome her pain and vitriol.

"I think it'll take a lot of counseling, a lot of help, for her to be normal," Wanda St. Hilaire says.

Meanwhile, the family scrapes by. The $650 rent at Tammy St. Hilaire's apartment and some utilities are being paid through September by a relief fund. Hailey's school gave $3,000; patrons where Tammy works raised $700; Spence gets $130 weekly in disability aid from the state. It doesn't go far enough.

Hailey is happy her mother can take her to school, happy that Spence is around so much. They watch a lot of movies, she says.

There's so much child left in her daughter, Spence says, but so much of her has been ripped away by the fire. "And that's to be expected," Spence says. "One day you go out, you're fine, and two hours [later], you're not."

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