In tiny Rhode Island, tragedy's tug has many strings

With grief raw and the state reeling, locals gather for music, tributes, and prayers.

Each relationship, each loss and near miss, is unique.

There's Mario Giamei, who used to go to The Station three times a week. He escaped through a side exit, but five of his friends did not.

There's Nick O'Neill, a teenager whose band Shryne occasionally played gigs at the club, and whose many friends from nearby Pawtucket gathered at a memorial service Sunday.

Or Stephanie and Kimberly Napolitano, who climbed out through a window, and aren't sure whether they should feel lucky or guilty.

But each of these instances, and all the others related to last Thursday's deadly fire, touch a chord with everyone in the state. Rhode Island, they'll say, is different from other states. It's not just that it's the union's smallest state, although that's part of it. People who are born here tend to stay here, and, as State Attorney General Patrick Lynch says, the proverbial six degrees of separation are, in Rhode Island, more like one and a half.

"The scale of life and the scale of relationships in Rhode Island is much more intimate," says Joseph Conforti, a New England studies expert at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, who taught in Rhode Island for 10 years. "This is a local event, this is a very personal event, it's something that could have easily touched someone you know."

That closeness means many Rhode Islanders now feel a sense of solidarity. It's part of the reason Father Frank Sevola, director of the St. Francis Chapel and City Ministry Center in Providence, decided to hold an informal memorial service of song, poetry, and prayer at his chapel.

He's only been at his post six months, but "you quickly learn that it's such a tight-knit community.... It not only means people are affected by this, but that people are readily available [for support]." And, surrounded by candles and music, that's what some two hundred people at Sunday's service gave. Some sang, while others offered prayers or remembrances of those lost. Bill McKenna, an older man from Cranston, R.I., came to "show how unified we are." Mr. McKenna has one friend who lost a son in the fire, and another whose daughter and son-in-law were killed. He brought along a poem called "Safely Home" that helped him when his father died. "It tells us not to mourn, and to imagine the joy when we're all together again."

For Joel Graham, an art dealer from Saunderstown, R.I., the connection is even more tenuous. Mr. Graham is a guitarist, and used to play at Rhode Island clubs similar to The Station. So, when he heard about the service on the radio, he brought his acoustic guitar and joined in for songs like "Let It Be" and "Amazing Grace." "I heard there was a local band that backed up [Great White] that lost a guitar player," he says. "That's killing me. I've had that guitar player, who is some kid, in my mind. I thought about him the whole way up, and I thought I'd come and play guitar for that kid."

At this point, the grief for many is still raw. Latoya Hall and Amy House had a tough time speaking as they stood to say a few words about their best friend. "Someone once told me, to the world you may be just one person, but to one person, you may be the world. Nick O'Neill was that for me," said Ms. House, clutching a photo of Nick and another girl in formal dress, smiling, in all the exuberance of life.

Later, House finds a bit of laughter through her tears, as reporters ask her about Nick. "He's going to be so mad at me that he's getting all this publicity," she says. "He was in a band, and he wanted to be famous. And he had to wait till now."

In the town of West Warwick itself, the sense of connectedness is even stronger. It's a small town, run-down, and largely working-class - not one that anyone here ever imagined would be the focus of a national tragedy. Residents describe it as the sort of place where everyone knew each other, and say they're still trying to sort through just who was at The Station - which served a largely local crowd - including some of the 97 who were killed.

"You don't always know last names, you just know people," says Laura Morrow, a hairdresser who's lived in West Warwick her whole life, and who had considered attending the Great White concert. "This'll put a lot of knives in people's hearts."

But even as they mourn, those from West Warwick, and from the whole state, are starting the slow process of healing. At the St. Francis service, hugs were as common as tears. "This community, and its reaction to this tragedy," Father Sevola told mourners, "is what will get us through this terrible time."

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