On February 20th, 2003, a fire broke out at The Station nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island. Sound-proofing foam was lit on fire by pyrotechnics set off by the manager of the band Great White, who was playing at The Station that night. The resulting inferno claimed the lives of 100 people and seriously injured another 132. The final toll would make it the fourth-deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history.
Nine years later, many of the survivors still wear the mental and physical scars of that night. For them the struggle is daily, and they look to each other for strength. For Joe Kinan and Pau Bertolo, two survivors of the Station fire, they have found strength in the hobby of classic American cars. For these two men, the fire has left them scarred in different ways, and yet they have both been helped by their passion for hot rods and muscle cars.
For Joe, the scars are physical, and readily apparent. Burned over 90% of his body, Joe was found barely alive beneath a pile of burned bodies. He lost his ears, one eye, his lips, and had to received skin grafts over much of his body. To date he has received over 100 surgeries. That he is out and about at all is a small miracle, and his upbeat attitude and jovial laugh even more so. Joe speaks easily of his condition; there is no dragging the story out of him. He is just happy to be alive.
For Paul, the scars are mental, in some ways deeper than the skin grafts that Joe wears with a pride all his own. Paul survived, inadvertently saved by a man who shoved him back into the building. He eventually escaped through a window, suffering glass cuts but avoiding the worst of the fire. The healing process for Paul has been a long, hard journey, one that may never end. But Paul has found a certain solace in the 1959 Chevy Biscayne that he restored and dedicated to the lives lost that tragic night.
Paul was always a fan of the Biscayne, having owned at least a half-dozen before buying the donor for this project. He even sold the Biscayne he owned at the time to help fund this project, most of which he undertook himself. Paul went with the firefighting theme, pulling the idea from his own head in tribute not just to the firefighters of West Warwick, but across the nation. The Biscayne itself has been across the country, and the inside of the decklid has even been signed by some big names like rockstar Bret Michaels, among others.
He also dedicated the Biscayne to the 100 lives lost on that night, the names of each victim written across the rear trunk lid, one of the few aspects of the project he outsourced. Everything else, from rebuilding the 283 V8 and 2-speed Powerglide, to hooking up the working light and siren, Paul did himself. The restoration is incredibly clean, and impeccably thorough; “I spent over 8 months working on this car day in and day out before it was ready for the 5th anniversary [of the fire].” He finished the car on his birthday, November 29th.
The firefighter theme has struck a chord in a country where such men are known and revered for their bravery. Indeed, the Biscayne seems the perfect ride for a fire chief to ride around in, and Paul has shown off the memorial car up and down the East Coast. His is a car that can be admired, but not celebrated because of the tragedy that came before it.
For Joe though, cars have proven an outlet, a way to celebrate his second chance at life. Joe has wasted no time getting to work building his dream garage, starting with a 1-of-25 1980’s AMG Mercedes. Make no mistake though, Joe has great taste in American cars, and assures us that one of his next purchases will be a 1954 Hudson Hornet. “The car that started NASCAR,” he says. “I have to have one.” Joe’s zest for life is undiminished, and his love for great cars has been a part of his healing process.
For Paul, his healing process has been helped by the ‘59 Chevy and giving back to the community. “It helps me, but it also helps other people,” says Paul. For him and the other survivors, the firefighter-themed Chevy Biscayne is more than just a showpiece; it is a memorial, a reminder, and the embodiment of self-healing. For Paul and Joe, their lives have been forever changed by this tragedy. But for them at least, old American cars have proven a powerful healing tool, and that means more than any amount of (virtual) ink we could spill on the subject.