Tattoos memorialize tragic nightclub fire

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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, Ms. 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 donations received will benefit a foundation working to build a memorial at fire site.

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

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. Mr. 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," Ms. McLaughlin said. "That's where my brother met his fate. In that place is where everything started."

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. Ms. Sanetti died. Ms. 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 says "Life is beautiful," a catch phrase she and Ms. Sanetti said to each other, as well as the date of the fire and of her son's birthday. It also includes a cherry blossom to represent new beginnings.



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