Gina Russo was unconscious when an unknown rescuer pulled her from the Station nightclub fire on Feb. 20, 2003. The blaze was the fourth-deadliest nightclub fire in United States history, killing 100 people.
But Russo made it out alive.
Paul Lonardo, co-author of “From the Ashes: Surviving the Station Nightclub Fire,” visited the Warwick Public Library last week to talk about the non-fiction book he co-wrote with Russo, who suffered fourth-degree burns and lost her fiancé to the blaze. About 20 people gathered to learn more about her story, which was published in January 2010.
“The book is pretty much her feelings,” Lonardo said at the event. “I just put them to words.”
Russo, a Cranston resident, wasn’t in attendance but said in a separate interview that a mutual friend introduced her to Lonardo about four years ago. After meeting, Lonardo read articles and dug through information to learn more about her. A month or so later, he called her and they began working on the 189-page novel.
In addition to interviewing Russo, he met with her family members. He chatted with her parents, as well as her children, who were 12 and 14 at the time of the fire, to capture their emotions.
“He’s just an incredible person,” Russo said. “I don’t know if he really understands what he’s done for me in helping me put this book together.”
When the fire began, she and her then fiancé, Warwick resident Fred Crisostomi, attempted exiting through a door near the stage but a bouncer blocked their way. They tried to make it to the front door but by the time they made their move, chaos erupted and people crowded the entryway.
Russo thought she was going to die. She prayed before falling to the floor and passing out.
“To this day, she doesn’t remember what happened after that,” Lonardo said.
She woke up from an induced coma 11 weeks later. It was then that she learned that the fire killed 100 people, including her fiancé. While grieving, she endured treatment and physical therapy. Despite her loss, and the fact that 60 percent of her body was burned, she overcame her sorrow, choosing to help others instead of wallow.
Initially, she was devastated that she would never be able to grow hair on her head. But after meeting other burn survivors from the fire, she was able to put it into perspective, as some lost their eyesight and were severely burned.
“I thought, ‘Who am I to complain?’” Russo said. “I feel lucky to be alive. The scars are there. Sometimes people notice them, and sometimes people don’t.”
Lonardo said her ability to look on the bright side is compelling. He is impressed by her courage.
“She’s got the best attitude,” he said. “It’s a story that has a happy ending for a horrible incident. She wanted help telling that story, and I’m glad she found me to do it.”
Russo decided to share her tale as a means to help her cope. In time, she realized it was – and is – helping others.
She discovered that a woman in California hadn’t left her home in four years because of injuries and scars. After reading the book, the woman came to terms with her appearance and no longer isolates herself.
The book, which is self-published and has sold more than 2,500 copies, is also part of the curriculum at Boston University School of Medicine.
“It teaches students about compassion,” Russo said, noting that she visits the school twice a year to meet students after they’ve read it. “I was a very quiet girl before the fire. All I keep thinking is, ‘Look at me now.’ Something so tragic happened, but it escalated my life to a point where I’m now helping people.”
And that’s not all she does to assist others. For the last 29 years, she has worked at the Children’s Rehabilitation Department at Hasbro Children’s Hospital, handling billing and insurance, checking people in and counseling burn survivors.
“It’s a good place,” she said. “I’m proud of my work.”
Russo is also the president of the Station Fire Memorial Foundation, which was founded about four months after the blaze to ensure a permanent memorial is built at the site of the fire. She became involved three years ago.
The group secured ownership of the land a year ago when Raymond Villanova deeded the property at 211 Cowesett Avenue in West Warwick to the Foundation. More recently, they put up a fence to close off the property, while crosses that served as monuments have been secured in a vault.
Russo said construction would soon take place. The memorial will consist of a lot of stone and brick, as the members want the memorial to “last a lifetime.” They are also gearing up for their first annual golf tournament at the Cranston Country Club Oct. 14 to raise funds.
“As a survivor, my goal is to make those 100 happy and proud of everything we’re accomplishing,” she said. “We honor their lives by building something beautiful. Such incredible things came into my life because of this tragedy, so I can’t be anything other than grateful and blessed.”
But she knows some survivors and family members of those who lost their lives don’t agree. They are still angry. But that emotion, she said, isn’t doing any good.
“Let’s celebrate their lives and try to make this a little less tragic by going forward,” she said.
Lori and Mike Beagan, who attended the library discussion, visited the site before it was fenced in. Though neither of them lost a loved one in the fire, they feel attached to it because Lori’s brother called her and asked her to go to the show that night. They didn’t go because she wasn’t feeling well.
“I was one of those people that if I had been there, I would have been right in front of the stage and I know in my head that I wouldn’t have gotten out,” Lori said. “There’s a reason why I didn’t go and there’s a reason why I’m still here; I just don’t know what that reason is yet.”
But Mike said he has an idea.
“I never would have met her,” he said. “She’s changed my life and risen me up.”
While at the site, Mike said he was overwhelmed with emotion. Ever since then, he’s been interested in the topic, and Lonardo’s book helped him learn more.
“The book was really insightful,” he said.
For Lonardo, interviewing Russo and her loved ones was eye opening. It’s an experience he’ll never forget.
“I imagined what she was going through,” he said. “I really felt all these things for the first time.”
Lonardo is the co-author of “Life, with Cancer: The Lauren Terrazzano Story” and “Caught in the Act: A Family’s Fight to Save Their Daughter from a Serial Killer,” and the author of “Strike IX,” among other books.
He’s working on getting two more non-fiction works published, including the story of Jamie Coyle, an ice hockey player from Cumberland who had a stroke when she was 12. She is 17 now, and doing well. The goal of the book, said Lonardo, is to raise awareness about pediatric stroke.
“It’s not common, but it happens more than people would think,” he said.
The other story focuses on Scott Hornoff, a Warwick police officer who was wrongfully convicted of first-degree murder. Hornoff was charged with the 1989 killing of his ex-girlfriend, Victoria Cushman, and served six and a half years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit.
“He’s not angry; he just wants to tell his story,” Lonardo said. “He’s got a lot to say.”
Lonardo, who resides in Lincoln with his wife Janice and their son Jake, has also written fiction novels. But when composing non-fiction, he always leans toward informative, tender topics.
“These stories are real,” he said. “I respect people who have gone through these traumatic events. If somebody can come away with something positive from it, it’s not a sad story of suffering.”
To learn more about Lonardo and to get a copy of the book, visit PaulLonardo.com. For updates about the Foundation, visit StationFireMemorialFoundation.org.