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Injured Station survivor lives by her advice to others: 'You have a right to be happy'

By Judy Benson

Publication: The Day

Published February 18. 2013 4:00AM
Dana Jensen/The Day
Above, Nancy Noyes, a survivor of The Station nightclub fire, turns to look at her husband, Allen Falbowski, as he enters the room last week.

Columbia - There's no hint of anger, self-pity or melancholy in Nancy Noyes' canvases, alive with free-form swirls and intersecting drizzles of orange, turquoise, purple, white and much of the rest of the paint store palette - just pure creative energy and verve.

"You can't make this up. It makes itself," said Noyes, standing beside one of her paintings in the tidy, comfortable ranch house she shares with her husband of two years, Allen Falbowski. "I like my own artwork, because I see something different in it each time."

Anyone meeting Noyes, 52, for the first time would hardly guess her to be a survivor of the kind of horror that would have derailed another, less resilient, life. Except on her hands, the scars from The Station nightclub fire she escaped on Feb. 20, 2003, are obscured under the brunette locks that grew back and, she jokes, by the deft use of makeup to soften the ruddiness of her still-scorched complexion.

"Only he can make jokes about my hands," said Noyes, smiling and curling her left hand into a claw as she turned to Falbowski, a handyman who modifies the handles of her large paintbrushes so they're easier to grip.

At the time of the fire, Noyes was living in a New London apartment, running a housecleaning business and still fond of the heavy metal music scene she had been part of after leaving her childhood home of Uncasville for Los Angeles in her 20s. That night she had gone to hear the band Great White perform.

She ended up spending more than two months in Rhode Island Hospital and then Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, coping with skin grafts, lung damage and infections, followed by weeks of physical therapy to try to regain mobility in her hands. She is still considered disabled, and experiences pain when she tries to write or do other tasks that require fine motor skills. Her abstract painting, which she first took up in Los Angeles and started again a few years after the fire, suits her abilities, she said, because her chosen artistic style doesn't require executing fine details.

"Basically, I just use leftover house paint and a house paint brush, and just layer on a series of drizzles and shapes," said Noyes, who exhibited two closet doors from her mother's house, painted in her distinctive style, in the annual January show at the Hygienic Art Gallery in New London, marking them "free." She was happy to learn they had found a home.

"It hurts to paint, but I still paint," she said.

Noyes' best friend, New London resident Amelia Tranchida, said Noyes inspires and encourages her not to let her own past difficult episodes stop her from enjoying life today. The two met after the fire, when Noyes was volunteering at L+M and Tranchida was working at the hospital, where she still works today.

"She's a unique person," said Tranchida. "Considering everything she's been through, she doesn't blame anyone. And she keeps encouraging me to be myself. She leaves me detailed phone messages on my birthday, telling me to celebrate my life, and 'You have a right to be happy.'"

Tranchida admires that Noyes is able to talk about the fire and the aftermath frankly, and even with some humor.

"One day we were walking along Pequot Avenue, and she was telling me how during the fire, she was sitting on the hood of a car outside the nightclub when a fireman came up to her and asked her if she was all right," Tranchida recalled. "She said yes. She didn't know that the top of her head was on fire and smoking."

Noyes has told her story of the fire many times, to People magazine, television and newspaper reporters, and in two chapters of a book she unsuccessfully pitched to publishers. She might have pursued the book further, she said, but projects in her current life seemed more engaging.

The first was the Columbia house she and Falbowski bought and restored in 2007. Noyes took on the task of redesigning the kitchen, ordering the cabinets and appliances and doing what painting she could, while Falbowski did the carpentry. Three years later, the two were planning their wedding, choosing an active volcano in Hawaii for the setting.

"It's kind of weird I was in a fire and got married on a volcano," Noyes said.

Falbowski, standing beside her, said he thought the setting suited their relationship perfectly.

"It's kind of like, out of all this chaos and destruction, there's the creation of this beautiful island," he said.

That same year brought the settlement of a lawsuit by Noyes and other Station fire victims. While declining to talk about the specific amount she received, Noyes is eager to say how she used some of the money. She and Falbowski paid $110,000 for a run-down house in Waterford, then spent $140,000 fixing it up, doing much of the work themselves. Today the home is rented to Navy sailors, providing Noyes with a regular income and the responsibilities of keeping the books for the property and whatever cleaning and upkeep she can handle.

"It was disgusting," she said, showing an album of before-and-after photos of the house. "There were weeds in the gutter, and the yard was so overgrown, you couldn't even see the house from the road."

Over the years since 2003 Noyes has visited the scene of the fire a couple of times. She initially went to support groups and fundraisers for survivors and families of the 100 people killed in the blaze. In the first few years, she said, the events were helpful.

"It gives you a great appreciation for humanity, and that helps you heal," she said.

Now, though, her focus in on the present. What does she plan to do to mark the 10th anniversary?

"Absolutely nothing."

Surviving the fire, she said, "really doesn't change you as much as people think. You just go back to who you are."

j.benson@theday.com

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