Sound man survived deadly R.I. nightclub fire

Most Saturday nights in the summer, Bob Rager can be found behind the soundboard at Warren Community Amphitheatre for the River Rock at the Amp concert series.

Ten years ago today, he was behind the soundboard when Great White took the stage at The Station, a West Warwick, R.I., club. The band’s pyrotechnics ignited the flammable packing foam the club used for soundproofing. A hundred people were killed, including Great White’s guitar player, Brookfield native Ty Longley.

”He was a fun guy, really nice,” Rager said. ”He’d give the shirt off his back to anybody.”

Rager, who lives in Kent, only had been working for the band for three weeks when the fire occurred, but he was apprehensive about the use of the pyrotechnics in the small venues where the band was playing.

”I’ve seen enough accidents to know when things just don’t look right,” he said. ”I expressed my concerns.”

Those concerns were ignored.

The fire started shortly after Great White started its set. Rager was engrossed in his job behind the soundboard and didn’t realize something was wrong until the music abruptly stopped.

”When the band stopped playing, I looked up at the stage and it was engulfed in flames,” he said. ”My first thought? I’m not gonna die in this s– hole, and I’m gonna get out of here.”

As he crawled toward the exit, the entire club went black. He pulled his sweatshirt over his face because it was hard to breathe. He was bumping into people, crawling over people as he worked his way to the door, but it was clogged with too many bodies trying to squeeze through too small of a space.

”I tried to squeeze through, I tried going around the side, but I got pushed into a different room,” he said. ”I didn’t know where I was. It was black. And it felt like a heat wave.”

Rager eventually found a window, climbed out and then pulled out a woman who was sitting in front of it. Sitting in the parking lot, a couple of the band members dragged him to one of the ambulances.

While he felt the heat, he didn’t realize how badly he’d been burned. Rager suffered second- and third-degree burns over a third of his body. He had severe burns on his back and his entire right arm, and a mix of second- and third-degree burns on his left arm and face.

He spent two months in a Boston hospital, several weeks in a hospital back in Ohio and had home nursing care for another three to four months as he tried to recuperate from his injuries. The toughest part of the process was the physical therapy.

”I was trying to get the use of my hand and my arm again,” Rager said. ”I lost mass, lost muscle. I had to relearn how to use my hand, how to eat, how to write, everything.”

Rager now works for Aggressive Sound in Kent, but he’s picky about the jobs he takes. He much prefers open air venues like the Warren amphitheater.

”It took a long time to get back to doing what I do,” he said. ”I still don’t and won’t go to nightclubs. I just can’t do it.”

He follows the same rules when he’s a concertgoer.

”I won’t go see a show, if I know someone is touring with a lot of pyrotechnics, I will not go see it,” he said. ”I may want to go see it, but I just can’t bring myself to go. Like TSO (Trans-Siberian Orchestra), I can’t force myself to go to that show.”