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Tattoos memorializing victims of '03 RI nightclub fire that killed 100 focus of photo display

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PAWTUCKET, R.I. - The sacred heart tattoo inside Paula McLaughlin's wrist serves as an everyday reminder of her brother and sister-in-law, Michael and Sandy Hoogasian, who were among the 100 people killed by one of the nation's worst nightclub fires.

The flaming heart tattoo surrounded by rays of light is one of dozens people have inked to remember loved ones killed or injured in the Feb. 20, 2003, fire. Some survivors' tattoos serve as physical reminders alongside scar tissue from burns they received that night, when pyrotechnics for the rock band Great White set fire to flammable soundproofing foam lining the walls and ceiling of The Station nightclub in West Warwick.

With the 10th anniversary of the fire approaching, McLaughlin has organized a project to photograph those tattoos and the people who got them. The exhibit — Station Ink — will feature pictures of more than 60 people with tattoos made in memory of the fire or its victims, as well as stories of what the tattoos mean to them. It runs Feb. 15-17 at the Pawtucket Armory. Admission is free, but any donations received will benefit a foundation working to build a memorial at the site of the fire.

"I want it to be like walking through a memorial garden. ... A garden of pictures," said McLaughlin, a jewelry designer educated at Rhode Island School of Design. "Each one represents a person."

It's a project McLaughlin said she had to do.

The night they died, the Hoogasians were at Doors of Perception Tattoo for Michael's birthday. He had turned 31 the week before and was there so shop owner Skott Greene could start a new tattoo with flames on his shoulder and neck. It was there that they met Great White's lead singer, Jack Russell, who was also there to get a tattoo. Russell invited everyone to his show that night. He told them to bring their friends and added them to the VIP guest list.

A few hours later, most of them were dead.

"The tattoo was an important part of what happened," McLaughlin said. "That's where my brother met his fate. In that place is where everything started."

By the end of 2003, McLaughlin talked about marking the first anniversary of the fire with a photo exhibit of memorial tattoos. But, she says now, she was unable to emotionally handle it. She put the project on the shelf until late 2011, when she decided the time was right.

She recruited friend and professional photographer John Pitocco, who volunteered to take the pictures. The project has been helped by dozens of volunteers and sponsors donating their time, materials, space and services to take, print and hang the photos, and do myriad tasks to make the show happen. McLaughlin plans to ultimately collect the photos into a book.

Several photo shoots were organized, including one in late December that lasted 11 hours, as people and families affected by the fire had their photos taken and talked about those they lost. They came with tattoos made days after the fire, or just weeks ago.

Many spoke of how the fire changed the course of lives.

Robin Belgarde was supposed to meet her friend, Bridget Sanetti, 25, that night, but ended up staying home because her young son was too clingy. Sanetti died. Belgarde still cries when talking about her friend and what happened.

"It had a huge impact on my life, on how I viewed things," she said. "I had to believe in God. I had to believe in something after all this. I was very guilty for a long time."

She got her tattoo eight months after the fire. It includes the phrase "Life is beautiful," a catch phrase she and Sanetti said to each other, as well as the date of the fire and the date of her son's birthday. It also includes a cherry blossom to represent new beginnings and a fox with a halo to represent Sanetti, whom Belgarde calls "a sly fox."

Erin Cowan, 32, survived the fire, but her friend, Tammy Mattera, didn't. Cowan got a koi fish tattooed on her left ankle to remember Mattera and to represent perseverance and strength.

"It was also a reminder to myself to move forward," she said.

Christine Jones became a tattoo artist because of the fire. She lost more than two dozen friends that night. A jewelry designer at the time, several friends asked her to design memorial tattoos. She did so many that someone suggested she learn how to tattoo. She has since made that her career.

A tattoo she inked on herself will be in the exhibit. The design spans the circumference of her lower leg and includes 100 butterflies and the phrase, "Let these words portray the sorrow in my heart for friends lost," among other elements. Her policy is to do for free any tattoo to memorialize the fire, and any tattoo to cover up scars from the blaze.

As she works on the tattoos, she'll ask about the people they lost.

"They think they're lucky because I'm willing to do it for free. I think I'm lucky because they let me," she said.

Others who have been photographed include a couple who lost their daughter and are pictured together with the husband's upper arm bared to show a tattoo of their daughter's face; a fire survivor whose friend died in the blaze not long after they interviewed Russell for their college radio station; members of a family who got flying pig tattoos to remember their sister and daughter, who loved flying pigs; a woman who was severely burned in the blaze whose phoenix tattoo represents her journey after the fire and her teenage son, who honoured his mother with his own tattoos.

There is still a deep bitterness in Rhode Island about the fire and its aftermath. Many of those affected believe justice was never served, that those responsible got off easy or were never prosecuted at all. Three men were charged. The band's tour manager pleaded guilty to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter and served less than two years in prison. The brothers who owned the club pleaded no contest to the same charges. One served less than three years in prison; the other served no time.

For some, the project has been a positive outlet and a way to finally talk about the fire. McLaughlin has, for the first time, talked about it with co-workers. A man who lost his sister said participating has finally allowed him to discuss it. A woman who lost her daughter said that, for the first time since the fire, she's looking forward to February.

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