Scott James: Grief Builds When a Life Is “Stolen”

Journalist learns first-hand how emotions intensify when a loved one is killed.

Posted Oct 28, 2020

Contributed by Scott James, author of Trial by Fire.

Ian Tuttle, used with permission
Scott James
Source: Ian Tuttle, used with permission

I knew reporting the story would be the most challenging assignment of my journalism career. I just didn’t expect it to hit home in a painful, personal way.Nearly ten years ago, I began looking into the worst thing to happen where I grew up: the 2003 Rhode Island nightclub fire that killed 100 people when the rock band Great White ignited fireworks indoors for its show. It’s the deadliest single-building fire in modern American history and the nation’s deadliest rock concert.

The tragedy was particularly notorious because it was caught on video from inside. Millions around the world watched the horrific footage.

Despite that notoriety and the enormous loss of life, there were never any trials, criminal or civil. This left unanswered questions. When I visited home from California I heard complaints that justice was never served. Eventually, I started asking questions and ten years later it became the book Trial by Fire.

Unlike police and prosecutors, I had no ability to subpoena or coerce people to speak with me. But I had a journalist’s empathy – the ability to listen and then bring someone’s story to life. 

Eventually, however, my reporting brought me to a dark place, a crossroads where a personal tragedy mimicked the events I covered. It would impact my work and lead me to a larger lesson about grief.

Death, of course, is inevitable, and the cycles of grief are so well known it’s almost cliché: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

But when a loved one is killed due to someone else’s actions, the emotions take on an additional context: a crime has been committed. Even if it’s not a crime in the legal sense, at the very least it’s theft, a loved one’s “life was stolen.”

In the nightclub fire, these feelings were remarkably intense. Rhode Island is a tiny, parochial state where it seemed like everyone knew someone killed or hurt. “People say in the world it’s six degrees of separation,” said then-Attorney General Patrick Lynch. “In Rhode Island, it’s probably a degree and a half.”

The tight-knit community became overwhelmed with grief. People also felt betrayed. The nightclub was consumed in flames in seconds and victims did not have enough time to escape, even though the club had just passed a fire safety inspection. The fireworks were illegal, but the band ignited them anyway. Why?

The systems that should protect people from such a disaster had failed. In addition to mourning, people were distraught at what they saw as deception and a lack of accountability. For some, this led to depression, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts. One woman spoke of her fantasies of dismembering one of the nightclub’s owners alive.

Frustrated, the fire’s victims turned viciously on each other. Families that lost loved ones bitterly blamed survivors, some gravely injured.

“There were certain comments made that, ‘You pushed my loved one aside. My loved one died because you survived,’” said Jonathan Bell, chairman of the Station Family Fund, a charity that aided the fire’s victims.

I did not expect to discover such hatred between different factions of victims. The dissension made a terrible situation even worse for years.

Then while I was deep into writing the book, I received a phone call. My mother was in the hospital. She’d been in a car wreck.

I took the next flight home to find my 80-year-old mother intubated and barely alive. She’d been the passenger in a car that was hit head-on by a man driving on the wrong side of the road. Brutal surgeries tried to save her over the course of a few days, but she did not survive.

While our family surrounded my mother in her final days, a hospital administrator approached and discreetly intruded to ask: Would we be filing a lawsuit?

We couldn’t even respond. Later, though, I remembered from my reporting on the nightclub fire that some insurance companies balked at paying victims’ hospital bills. The disaster was someone else’s fault, insurers argued, those other parties’ policies should pay.

It was one of so many acts of duplicity and failure in the nightclub tragedy that I’d almost forgotten. But, indeed, just like the fire victims, in our grief we had to hire an attorney on behalf of my mother’s estate.

In the weeks that followed my mother’s death, I wondered about the man who killed her. There had never been anything in my hometown newspaper about the collision. Why was the man driving on the wrong side of the road?

I obtained the police reports. There had been no arrest. The driver was never tested for drugs or alcohol. He was visiting from Salt Lake City and on his way to catch a flight at Boston’s Logan airport. The officer on the scene from the Attleboro Police Department reported that my mother had only minor injuries.

The police report made no sense, especially since we’d informed the police when my mother died. I contacted the local district attorney and requested information about the case. I was ignored, multiple times. I sent a certified letter. Still, no response.

I flew in from California and went to the district attorney’s office and asked to speak to someone “about the man who killed my mother.” Being there in person caused a flurry of activity, but no one would see me. Instead, I had to come back another day. When I did, I was told the police never reported my mother was killed, so there was no criminal investigation. The driver was never held accountable.

An assistant district attorney said she’d see if they could pursue charges, but then ignored my many requests for an update.

Like the victims of the fire, albeit on a much smaller scale, I felt my loved one had been stolen from me, and the system failed. The same district attorney’s office that handled my mother’s death had just received worldwide media attention for the questionable prosecution of a teenager whose texting played a role in a friend’s suicide. I guess being featured on Dateline NBC took priority over the life of a senior citizen. As a member of the news media, this made me livid.

Used with permission of Ian Tuttle
Scott James
Source: Used with permission of Ian Tuttle

Rather than let my anger fester, as I’d seen happen to the families of those killed in the nightclub fire, I asked my editor for a break from the book. I needed time with my thoughts. My work was focused on death, and now so was my life. I would not allow myself to be consumed.

When I returned to writing about the fire, I had a renewed commitment. I was determined to get readers to understand what happened and connect with the people in my book on an emotional level, so readers would feel deeply what my subjects felt. Even the “villains” of the disaster would be humanized in my recounting. In several cases, I was the first reporter to listen to their side of the story.

I’m not naïve about closure. Finally having answers and access to more information is not a salve for everyone.

But after my mother’s death, I have a better appreciation now for the additional burden faced when a loved one’s death happens because of someone else. I’d written so many of these stories in 40 years of journalism. I’d witnessed the grief. Now, finally, I was closer to actually understanding.

Scott James is a veteran journalist and the author of Trial by Fire. Since 2009 Scott’s reporting has appeared in The New York Times, and he is the recipient of three Emmy Awards for his work in television news. He’s also the author of two bestselling novels, SoMa and The Sower, written under the pen name Kemble Scott.