Woman honors Station victims with unique exhibit

Photos from the Station Ink exhibit in Pawtucket.

Feb. 20, 2013 marks the 10th anniversary of The Station nightclub fire in West Warwick. The fire started when a band's pyrotechnics ignited soundproofing foam. One hundred people were killed. NBC 10's Mario Hilario begins a week-long series of sharing people's stories, including some that have never been heard before.

Paula McLaughlin lost her brother and her sister-in-law in The Station nightclub fire on Feb. 20, 2003.

She sat down with NBC 10 for her first television interview to talk about coping with her loss and her journey to a place where she was finally ready to do something positive to honor not only her loved ones, but all of those who died.

"He was getting a tattoo the night of the fire. He was starting it, and he was going to finish it. It was going to be a sacred heart. So, all of his friends went out and got them," McLaughlin said.

And it was how McLaughlin got the idea for a photo exhibit of tattoos to honor victims of The Station nightclub fire.

Her brother, Mike Hoogasian, and his wife, Sandy, were among the 100 people who died.

"I needed to do something in the beginning, not realizing that I emotionally couldn't do it," McLaughlin said.

Even talking to others affected by the fire was difficult, to say the least.

"I could not handle talking to them. I couldn't even deal with what I was going through. I didn't know how deep it was. It lasted for years," McLaughlin said.

Ten years of grieving and healing and Februarys she said she wished would never come.

"We pray for February to be over. Everything: the funerals were then, the wakes, my brother's birthday, the last time I saw them, the fire," McLaughlin said. "I wanted something else."

That something else was Station Ink -- a photo exhibit. As the 10th anniversary was approaching, McLaughlin was finally ready and found others affected by the fire were ready too.

"A mother who lost a daughter say that they were looking forward to February for the first time in a long time. That's when I knew. That was the turning point in this exhibit that it was all worth it," McLaughlin said.

A project that brought people together, as those who had gotten tattoos in honor of loved ones lost in the fire came to be photographed.

"Friends meeting friends again. I was making new friends, but a lot of them were coming back together again. It was emotional," McLaughlin said.

And inspirational.

"The human spirit, I mean, people are just unbelievable," McLaughlin said.

It was a learning experience in ways she never thought possible.

"There's definitely a healing part of this, and that's the best part. I didn't expect that. I don't know what I expected. I just wanted to do this for my family and for everyone," McLaughlin said.

The project turned out to be a big step in her ongoing journey.

"I've been quiet for so long. I want everybody to know how much we love and miss these people. You can see that in these photos," McLaughlin said.

After 10 years, McLaughlin found good from unthinkable tragedy.

"Mike liked tattoos, and so didn't Sandy," McLaughlin said. "This was the best way I thought they would be proud."

The Station Ink exhibit was held Feb. 15-17 in Pawtucket and something else very positive came out of it. McLaughlin turned it into a fundraiser and raised more than $20,000 toward a permanent memorial on the site of The Station fire.