Gina Russo: 20 Years After the Station Fire

The survivor, one of the most severely injured in the blaze, feels 'grateful and blessed' to be alive.
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Gina Russo at the Station Fire Memorial Park in West Warwick. She still serves as president of the Station Fire Memorial Foundation. Courtesy of Gina Russo.

Gina Russo was dying.

Someone pulled the Cranston resident from the burning ruins of the Station nightclub on Thursday night, Feb. 20, 2003. By Sunday, doctors at Boston’s Shriners Children’s Hospital told her family to prepare for the worst.

Second- and third-degree burns covered 40 percent of her body, including her forearms and hands, her left shoulder and the left side of her face and scalp. She would eventually lose her left ear, and parts of her scalp were burnt down to the bone. A ventilator helped her scorched lungs breathe.

It was too much for her body to handle. Her organs were shutting down.

Alex, her oldest son, was nine years old at the time. After hearing the news, he asked an aunt to take him to the hospital’s chapel. He went inside, alone, and emerged a few minutes later, smiling.

Mom’s going to be fine, he said. She’s going to live.


Twenty years after the Station fire, Gina Russo is thriving.

After losing her fiance, Fred Crisostomi, in the tragedy, Russo found love again, marrying Steve Sherman in 2007. Between them they share nine grandchildren. She still lives in Cranston, and her sons, Alex Odsen, twenty-nine, and Nick Odsen, twenty-six, are both married. She lives for the moment, knowing how easily life can be ripped away.

Her journey has been anything but easy. Her lengthy hospital stay — first at Miriam, then Shriners, Mass General and Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital — lasted four months, during which she endured painful debridement procedures to remove dead skin, multiple skin grafts and rehabilitation on her scarred limbs, knees and elbow. After coming home in June 2003, she struggled through cycles of depression, anger, surgeries and rehab, writing notes to Fred in a journal and using his memory as a source of strength when she wanted to give up.

As president of the Station Fire Memorial Foundation, she helped secure the old nightclub site in West Warwick for use as a memorial park that opened in May 2017. She visits often with her three-year-old grandson, Vincent, named after her ninety-six-year-old stepfather.

She wants him to know her story — and his father’s story — of survival. Of how she emerged from the flames scarred but stronger. Of how she still talks to the 100 angels, as she calls them — those who didn’t make it through the flames — when she needs strength or guidance.

In September 2007, she published a book with Paul Lonardo chronicling her yearslong battle to heal. From the Ashes is dedicated to the 100 people who lost their lives in the inferno.

Russo recently spoke to Rhode Island Monthly from her vacation home in Seabrook, New Hampshire, about her journey, her memories and her path forward, twenty years after the Station nightclub fire.

You’re a grandmother now. Congratulations!

Yes, thank you. I am! A little boy. I call him my blood one. In total, my husband and I have nine. it’s a second marriage. But this one is my child’s child. I have a total of nine, mostly girls. There are three boys.

It’s truly been a blessing in all of my years of insanity. When the first one came along, he was just a delight. And he still is at thirteen.

How is everybody? How are you? How are your sons?

Everybody’s good. Really. They were six and nine when it happened; now they’re twenty-six and soon to be thirty. The youngest one got married in 2021 to a girl that I just adore. I have been blessed with two beautiful daughters-in-law. My oldest son got married this past August; he’s the one with the baby. Well, baby — he’s three now. It’s all that I could have ever imagined. I could have missed all of these incredible milestones. When they graduated high school … there were just so many things and every time there was something that happened all I kept thinking was, ‘I almost missed this.’ So every day with them is a gift and a blessing.

And I met someone in 2006 through a mutual friend. We were just all hanging out and this person came along. I remember telling him, ‘I’m never getting married; just be cool as a friend,’ and a year later we got married. And we’ve been married for fifteen years. He was divorced for a while and had two daughters and a son. Our kids blended well so it’s very fortunate.

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Russo, center, with son Alex Odsen, left, and his wife Kayla, and Nick Odsen and wife Danielle. Courtesy of Gina Russo.

In your book you said you couldn’t wait to go back to work at Rhode Island Hospital. You couldn’t wait to do the things you had done before. Are you still working? What keeps you busy these days?

I did return to Rhode Island Hospital. I handled billing and insurance in the pediatric rehabilitation department. I did that until 2016, and then I retired. My life was just getting a bit overwhelming and I was also in the middle of building the Station Fire Memorial Park. I walked away from Rhode Island Hospital after thirty-two years, but I could not leave the Station project. I just couldn’t. So I stuck it out and on May 21 of 2017 we opened that beautiful Memorial Park. I thought my job was done. Everybody kept saying, ‘You’re done!’ or ‘You’ve done it. You gave it your all.’ But I needed to stick it out for a little while longer and I’m still here.

You’re still president of the Station Fire Memorial Foundation, correct? Are there any plans for memorializing the 20th anniversary of the fire?

Yes. We asked the religious community in some way to honor the 100 [victims] — whatever they wanted to do. So a lot of people are opening up their doors, and it gives the families an opportunity to go somewhere warm. It’s very difficult to plan a memorial in February. I’m going to kick myself if it’s 60 degrees, but it’s New England — there could be a blizzard. So on Feb. 19 we’ve got some memorial services going at church masses and different places of religion. On the 20th there’s nothing specific planned. We hope that people will go out to the park, that they’ll visit with a loved one, a friend, even if you didn’t have a connection, go there and feel the peace that we feel when we’re there. On Sunday, May 21, we are hosting an official memorial service. The 21st is kind of important, because May 21st [2017] is when we opened the park. So we felt that that was a good date and by then hopefully the weather is much better.

Do you still visit the site?

I am there probably once a week. Myself and another family member, Jody King, who lost his brother Tracy in the fire. He and I are pretty religious about going out there to make sure it’s clean, nothing’s broken. It’s important. We struggled to build this beautiful memorial and our intention is to make sure it’s always kept clean and safe. And we’re pretty good at it. My three-year-old grandson comes with me once in a while. I’ve taken him here several times now and for some reason he gravitates toward Nicholas [O’Neill’s] monument. [Editor’s note: Eighteen-year-old Nicholas O’Neill was the youngest victim of the Station fire.] It’s just the strangest thing. He will stand in front of it, and I don’t know, he’s talking about something. I’ve talked with [Nick’s] dad about it. Nick definitely has a very, very big presence in that park. So my grandson comes and he’s young and he doesn’t understand any of this, obviously, but I want him to know eventually that this is what we survived and this is what his dad survived, too.

I wanted to ask you, too, about Alyson Musco, the Shriners Children’s Hospital nurse who named her daughter after you. Do you still keep in touch?

Absolutely, we do. Yes. Alyson and I, Gina and her little sister Natalie. We are all good friends. They live in Connecticut now. So we don’t see each other as often but thank God for social media. She’s been a joy to watch grow. Oh my God, what a beautiful girl.

That’s so sweet. How old is she now?

She is 14.

During your recovery you struggled with your anger for a while. Does that ever still come to the forefront, that anger at what happened and that charges weren’t brought against more people? Does that affect you?

No, it does not. They were renting too much space in my head. And my family and my friends deserved more of me than them consuming my thoughts. But the costs of what happened that night are bigger than me. So no matter my feelings toward them, they have to live with something whether they acknowledge it or not. It is something bigger than me. It was just consuming too much of my life. The only thing that upsets me now is every now and then I get wind of someone going before the House speaker asking for a reduction in the fire safety laws. Because they don’t want to pay for something, whatever it might be. That infuriates me. That just infuriates me, because this tiny little state should be the role model for everyone going forward. I know for a fact there are still people fighting to keep all those laws in place. But every now and then it happens and it’s shocking to me. That’s one issue I have after all this time that upsets me; I just can’t wrap my head around that.

Do you keep in touch with some of the survivors and some of the families of survivors? It seemed like you had a really strong bond with many of them.

Yes, I do. There are some of us that have stood the test of time, but you know, everybody kind of eventually goes their separate ways. But there are quite a few of us that are still hanging tough. Maybe we don’t see each other every week or every month, but we’re there and we know we can be there for each other and we always will be. I have quite a few family members of the deceased that have been so incredible and so warm and welcoming that I couldn’t ask for anything more than that. Fred’s family, they’re just everything to me and they’ve embraced my husband. It’s been a real blessing. They have never left me and that’s all that I probably could have ever asked for.

I loved reading about you and the ‘misfits,’ as you called yourselves, going back out to concerts. What was it like getting back out there and going to live events after something so traumatic?

It was nerve-wracking. It really, really was. When I finally started going, I always called ahead to make sure that no one was doing any pyrotechnics. Because I am still that girl — if I can get to the front of the stage I’m going to the front of the stage. The very first show I ever went to [after the Station fire] was the Trans-Siberian Orchestra at PPAC. I knew about them, but I’d never seen them live. So off we went to the front of the stage. The show was spectacular: The first half was all laser lights. It was beautiful. The second half of the show the band starts and up went the pyrotechics. And we were literally right in front of it. There were four of us and we almost bolted to the door. Someone came right over to us and said — I don’t know how he knew — he just said, ‘You’re safe. You’re safe. I promise you’re safe. There’s a massive tank of water over their heads. I promise you.’ It was scary. Oh my gosh, so scary. And I started making phone calls after that. I was not going to let this stop my love of music, but I had to know. You ask and you hope they’re being honest. That’s all I can say. And I have to say everybody was. Everybody, wherever we’ve gone, people have been wonderful. But it was scary. I knew where every exit was — not just the one that they pointed out.

I love Tesla. I grew up in the ’80s and love hair bands. How did you get involved with the band and end up being friendly with them?

They were coming to Rhode Island in the September right after the fire. I came home from the hospital in June of 2003 and I wasn’t going anywhere. I mean, I could barely walk by myself. There was a group of survivors that had formed this little group — most of them had started the Station Family Fund. So I had started to communicate with them through the computer. And a bunch of them said they were going to the show. [Tesla] was the last show Fred and I had seen together before the fire. They were in Boston playing with a number of other rock bands. So when they said they were going I said, ‘Have a great time. When they sing the song ‘Love Song’ have a toast for Fred and I.’ Well, apparently they did. Someone took notice of it and the drummer, Troy Luccketta, was curious about what was happening and got involved after that. And then another survivor friend put Troy in touch with me. On the first phone call I hung up on him because I thought ‘Why would Troy Luccketta be calling me?’

I was stunned. And in my head all I could hear was Fred saying, ‘Oh my God, she’s talking to Tesla!’ And it just kind of snowballed. They put together two incredibly successful concerts. One was at PPAC. The last one was at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center. They were phenomenal and I just stayed friends with them. I can’t say enough about them. You know, I love their music, but now I love them as people.

Do you still do speaking engagements about fire safety?

Not as often as I had. This year I’ve got a couple of things coming up. I’ve kind of slowed down with that a bit. It was consuming a lot of my life, but if an opportunity comes up that I think is an important one, I’m there in a heartbeat. So I’m a more selective about when I do them now. Just because I needed to get me back a little bit. But at the same time, I will make sure that no one ever forgets what happened in Rhode Island.

Are you doing anything this year to commemorate the 20th anniversary?

We’re having a memorial service on May 21. And then I’m taking off to Italy for a month. In my head, in my heart, this is my final year of being in charge. I’ve got to find a way to get other people engaged in this because it can’t just be me for the rest of my life. You know, there’s so many of us that were affected by this fire. I have two incredible board members that step up and still help, but I’m not going to live forever. So I need to know that I can delegate to other people. I’ve visited my family [in Italy] a couple of times now. But we decided to make this a little bit of an extended trip and stay there for a couple of weeks and then jump on a Mediterranean cruise and check things out.

Because it’s such a big year, I need that separation. I need that time to just come down from it all. And it’ll be good. It’s just peaceful where I’m going and I’ll be surrounded by family. It’s an island called Ischia, right off of the coast of Naples. You have to take a ferry to get there. When my grandparents were born and raised there it was a fishing village and it’s evolved into so much more since. It’s an incredibly beautiful island. A lot of celebrities go there. There’s been a lot of films that have been shot there. But that’s where my family is. And as big as Italy is, that’s the place I want to be. I feel connected there. Someday I’ll roll around a little bit more but right now I’m very happy and content there.

Can you tell me about your phoenix tattoo and what it means to you? Have you gotten any others since then?

Oh, yeah!

They’re addictive, aren’t they?

Everybody warned me but I didn’t believe them!

I came home from the hospital in June of 2003, and there was nothing but time to read and learn things. I’d heard about the legend of the phoenix but I never really thought about it. Someone sent me a poster with the legend of the phoenix on it, and after that it just became like an obsession — I knew that was a permanent part of me. Eventually I came across this young person who owned a tattoo shop in Pawtucket called Bulldog Tattoo and he just did a phenomenal job. I told him what I wanted and he freehanded the entire thing. The first session was two hours just doing the outline. Then we waited a couple of weeks and I went back and he colored this thing into perfection. Unfortunately, he is not tattooing any longer or if he is I can’t find him. I want it recolored so it’s fresher looking, but it’s so hard to find someone who will work on someone else’s work.

This is my baby — it’s so important to me. It means everything to me. It just signifies everything rising from the ashes; that I did not let this tragedy hold me down. And I had to show that for my sons — to show them that we could rise above this. I feel like we did; we’re doing well.

And yes, I’ve gotten a couple more since. One is a cross with the word ‘Life’ in a ribbon. Another is a butterfly tattoo — that’s for our 100. I wanted to do 100 butterflies but my family probably would not have appreciated that. And I have one for Fred: I have a dragonfly that represents Fred. They’re just little pieces — that way I remember and I never forget.

In your book, you said you really believe the fire happened for a reason. Do you still believe that?

Absolutely. Absolutely. I just had a conversation with someone else about destiny. Over time so many things have presented themselves to me that just solidifies that this happened for a reason. It doesn’t make it right. But I’ve met so many people randomly. The anniversary is coming. Everybody will tell us they were supposed to be there. Everyone says that. No, you really don’t want to be there — you really didn’t want to be. But I have met people that literally still have the concert tickets in their hand and they cannot throw them away because they feel like whatever stopped them that night, if they get rid of those tickets, something’s going to happen. There was no reason for us not to get out the exit door — like why did that bouncer block it? Just so many things.

I wish Fred’s family hadn’t lost him. They deserved him. His children deserved him. Whether him and I would have made it through this insanity, that’s up to the higher powers to decide, you know, because a lot of marriages and relationships did not last. They just didn’t — it was too overwhelming. But I wish he was here for his family. That will always hurt, that he’s not here with them.

You drew a lot of your strength during your recovery from Fred. Does he still come into your thoughts?

Oh, all the time. All the time. And not just because the anniversary is coming. There are so many things I wish he could have experienced. Fred used to come into my dreams constantly and he would say to me, ‘When the right person comes along, I will leave.’ And I met Steve and I kept waiting and waiting for the dreams and he never came. It’s been fifteen years; I’ve never dreamt of him again. So that that makes me feel like, OK, he’s OK with me being married, me living. The person Fred was, he would be so mad if I wasn’t moving. He used to say, ‘Life is for the living. Live it.’ And if something bad happened, you dealt with it and you moved on. That was Fred’s optimism for life.

So yeah, he’s always in my thoughts. If I’m frustrated with something — like when I was building the Memorial Park — I call on all of them — the 100 — and say, ‘Get me through this, get me through this.’ My husband, thank God, is wonderful. He wasn’t in the fire — he’s a retired volunteer firefighter, so he knows that world. But he’s been very patient and very kind with everything I’ve lived through and what I’ve gone through.

The last line in your book says, ‘There is still so much of life left for me to live.’ What does that mean to you now? What do you see in your future?

I am going to take advantage of living. I enjoy every moment with my children, with my family. I’m blessed to still have my parents; they’re elderly, but we will still have them. I have incredible friends. My goal is just to keep living this incredible life I’ve been given. I keep saying I’m grateful and blessed. And that’s exactly how I feel. So I will always try to be true to that. If I don’t live that life, then it’s a disservice to the 100 who died and to all the doctors and the people who struggled to save my life. It would be a big disservice to them if I didn’t. That’s my hope — that God, whoever you want to believe in — gives me more years and I’ll do whatever I need to do to keep that going.

This interview was edited lightly for length and clarity.


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