DRACUT — Al Gray has made the trip many times over the last 14 years.
The 67-year-old Dracut man would travel from his home to an empty plot of land in West Warwick, Rhode Island, to plant crosses among the weeds and to lay flowers nearby.
The pilgrimages, made by Gray and many others, are to the former location of The Station nightclub.
On the night of Feb. 20, 2003, the club was packed with at least 500 people there to listen to rock band Great White. Among them was Derek Gray, Al Gray’s 22-year-old son and a couple of his friends.
What was supposed to be an easygoing night turned into horror when a blaze broke out after a pyrotechnics display ignited flammable foam that lined the club’s walls as soundproofing. Within minutes of the pyrotechnics beginning, the nightclub turned into a violent inferno.
The blaze killed 100 people, including Derek Gray and his 21-year-old friend Eugene Michael “Gino” Avilez, a 1999 Burlington High grad, while more than 200 people were injured.
“It tore my family apart, losing that boy,” Al Gray said through his tears on Tuesday. “He was 22-years-old and had the world in front of him.”
Al Gray added that his son had plans to marry the woman who was carrying his daughter, who is now 14 years old.
“It’s one of those things we have to live with, I guess,” he said.
On Sunday, Al Gray again made a trip to the former site of The Station, along with hundreds of others who lost loved ones to the blaze.
What was once a barren plot of land where the nightclub formerly sat is now a memorial park, built after more than a decade of work by relatives of those lost and fire survivors.
During Sunday’s memorial dedication ceremony, former Rhode Island Gov. Don Carcieri called the fire the “state’s worst tragedy.”
“Being here today … causes all the memories, all the emotions of that terrible night to wash back over us all again,” he said. “The raw pain, sadness and and heartbreak of losing loved ones so unexpectedly lives with us always.”
The memorial, sitting on one acre, includes a courtyard, gardens and granite monuments that display images of all 100 victims, their names and their birthday dates.
“It was beautifully done,” Al Gray said. “They worked really hard on making this.”
Al Gray has not been satisfied by the outcome of those whose negilgence caused the Rhode Island nightclub’s fire. Great White’s tour manager, who set off the pyrotechnics without a permit and the two brothers who owned the club struck plea deals. One of the brothers and the tour manager spent time behind bars.
“The Station — the doors had locks on them, they didn’t have sprinklers, they had insulation that was highly flammable — just like putting gasoline on the wall,” Gray said. “Sprinklers — three sprinklers would have put that fire out.”
“It would have saved a lot of lives,” he added. “Probably my son’s.”
Before retiring, Gray was a fire inspector and holds a degree in fire-safety technology. The still grieving father has applied his knowledge in helping prevent tragedies like what happened at The Station from taking place in the future.
He talks to children in schools and learning centers across Massachusetts about fire safety. He was also involved in the development of a law that requires sprinklers in all nightclubs, bars, discos and dance halls with occupancy limits of 100 or more in Massachusetts, a couple years after the fatal fire took place.
Gray’s work isn’t done either, as he’s pushing for legislation that would require that the construction of two-family homes be developed with sprinkler systems. He also wants to see fire alarms that are hard wired with a battery backup instead of depending solely on the batteries.
The obstacles are rampant in his mission.
“My son died and I can’t bring him back,” Gray said. “The only thing I can do is try to do things in his memory and the memory of the other 99 that died at The Station.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Follow Aaron Curtis on Twitter @aselahcurtis.