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3 Survivors of Nightclub Fire Seek Solace

THE NATION

Reuniting at cemetery, they share stories about the 4 members of their close-knit group who died in the Rhode Island blaze a year ago.

April 04, 2004|Richard C. Lewis | Associated Press Writer

CRANSTON, R.I. — The three survivors stood in the graveyard, fidgeting around the plots still stained brown with upturned soil where close friends and loved ones are buried.

They looked at the pictures swinging from the simple crosses at the grave markers. They laughed a little as they shared stories about four others from their close-knit group who perished a year ago in one of the nation's deadliest nightclub fires.

Melanie Fontaine, George Solitro and Andrea Stewart were forever changed by the tragedy. Now, they're trying to figure out just who they are without the people who defined them in so many ways.

"It's almost impossible to describe the feeling, to be out on a normal night, doing everyday activities, when your whole life is ahead of you," said Fontaine, whose brother and fiance were among the 100 who died. "And then in a matter of two minutes, your entire life has changed, and the people who are most important to you are gone. Suddenly, you cannot see your future anymore."

Since the fire in the town of West Warwick, the club's owners and a band tour manager have been charged criminally, victims' families and some survivors filed lawsuits, and Rhode Island and other states enacted stringent fire-safety measures.

Fontaine, 26, began dealing with her grief by shrouding herself in thoughts about her fiance, John Longiaru, and her only sibling, Mark. After about a month, she couldn't stand to be alone anymore. She called friends from grade school and high school, the ones she hadn't seen in years, and began meeting at least one of them nearly every day.

She learned their work schedules, so she'd know who would be free. When she saw them, she'd spill her soul.

She told them how she and Longiaru planned to move to Florida after she received her degree in elementary education. Their wedding could wait until then. She told them about his easy, natural smile, how he kissed her hand and bowed to her from his wheelchair when they first met. She told them how she'll always wonder what life would have been like with him at her side.

"I realized once I did start to speak about it, it was an incredible release for me, rather than something that would bring me down more," she said.

The couple didn't go out much, partly because of a degenerative bone disorder in Longiaru's legs that made it difficult for him to stand for long periods.

But they had a routine. They would go to her parents' house to do laundry. Longiaru would make a beeline for Mark's room to play video games, smoke and shoot the breeze with Mark and his best friends, George Solitro and Stephen Libera.

Solitro and Libera were at the house so often that they became part of the family. Mark's dad would cook the boys' meals. When they left to hit the bars, they would give Mark's mom a hug and a kiss.

The three friends were practically inseparable.

"It was like our whole group; that was all that mattered. It was just us," Solitro said, sipping a beer at a steakhouse where Libera worked part-time.

The group of seven -- among them Stewart, Melanie Fontaine and Mark's girlfriend, Leigh Ann Moreau -- was standing around together at the Station that night in February 2003, waiting to hear the 1980s rock band Great White perform, when Solitro left to hit on a girl. He was in the bathroom when the band's pyrotechnics sparked the fire. He never saw Mark Fontaine, Libera, Longiaru or Moreau alive again.

Somehow, he and Melanie found their way to safety. Stewart escaped through a window. They all say they were lucky, their escapes random.

"Maybe if I wasn't thinking of myself, I could have been there and maybe helped Mark and Steve get out," Solitro said as he took a long swig of beer. "Or be dead right next to them."

In the past year, Solitro, 23, has kept mostly to himself. He vows that he's going to take control of his life, but it seems as if he's in a holding pattern. He was accepted to study acting at the New York Film Academy, but deferred admission until January. His parents are disabled and sick, and he fears another death.

"I just don't know what to do anymore, you know?" he said.

He has walked away from two jobs since last summer and recently started another one, placing orders for diet pills. That doesn't excite him either.

He stops by the Fontaines' home in Johnston about twice a month. They share stories about Mark, and the Fontaines help him sort through his pain and arrange his life. It was awkward at first, but it feels natural now.

"They're like a second family to me. I'm really close to them," he said. "It brings me back a lot to the days when I had my friends."

Solitro and Melanie Fontaine have gotten much closer. He's in awe of how well she's coped.

"Maybe she's mentally stronger than me," he said.

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