Terminal Velocity: Musings on the Station Nightclub Fire

This week I watched a 48 Hours episode on CBS about the 2003 fire at the Station, a nightclub in Warwick, Rhode Island. One hundred people were killed, and another two hundred were injured. When I had first heard about the tragedy eighteen years ago, I remember telling myself, “If I were still living in Rhode Island, I’d be dead now.” Let me explain.

I moved to the little community of Riverside, Rhode Island, just south of Providence, in June of 1974, fresh out of graduate school at the State University of New York at Albany. My former wife and I rented a duplex on the narrow peninsula called Bullocks Point, and a few years later we purchased a house right on the banks of Narragansett Bay, where we remained until 1989, when we moved to Oregon.

The house was old but comfortable, and we remodeled it piece by piece over the years. A side porch was converted into a bedroom for two foster adolescents. The back porch became a kind of office/playroom with a wood-burning stove. A new deck in back became the best place to look out over the bay, breakfast coffee in hand, and watch sailboats in the summer and water fowl in winter.

Directly across the bay was the little town of Cranston, and south of that was Warwick. It was pleasant to watch the city lights on the water after sunset, and especially fun to watch the traditional party bonfires on the beaches up and down the bay on the night before the fourth of July.

I confess, my tastes in music back then were quite juvenile. In fact, I was a bit of a metal head when the “hair bands” were so popular. I loved MTV and stayed up late on the weekends to watch Headbangers Ball. I saw AC/DC, Judas Priest, Whitesnake, and Great White in concert. (Another confession, I often “hired” a nineteen-year-old who lived down the street to accompany me to concerts. That way, if I got a ribbing that I was the oldest guy at the show, I could claim that I was just here treating my teenage neighbor in thanks for some good deed he had done for me.)

Bottom line, if I had been in Riverside in 2003, I would have gone to see Great White at the Station. It would have been a walk down memory lane, a tip-of-the-hat to a bygone decade, a little sip at the fountain of youth. I would have been right in the thick of it, hemmed in on every side, unable to escape when the terror erupted.

The phrase terminal velocity popped into my mind as I was thinking about all of this. That’s the fastest speed an object can attain if it’s falling to earth, because air resistance prevents it from accelerating further. A skydiver free falling from a great height reaches terminal velocity, about 120 miles per hour, in about twelve seconds.

But aren’t we all “falling to earth?” Perhaps terminal velocity can be applied to the arc of our lives. I wonder if the individuals caught in that holocaust in Warwick had lived long enough to reach their own personal terminal velocity. It feels like I was granted a reprieve, a stay of execution, by moving out west when I did. I was given the time—the grace—to reach my own terminal velocity. Have I used it wisely? As I remember the conclusion of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, the older Ryan’s words haunt me.

And I know I’m falling as fast as I ever will.

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