At least 96 people burned to death here in a matter of minutes Thursday night as a roaring fire sparked by a heavy metal rock band's pyrotechnic show consumed an old, wood-frame nightclub in one of the worst such tragedies in the nation's history.

Firefighters and rescue workers took 170 people to the hospital. Twenty-five people remained in critical condition in hospitals in Providence, R.I., and Boston tonight.

Many never made it out -- firefighters found 25 bodies piled just inside the main entrance -- and others got out only after they had become human balls of fire.

"I saw people running out engulfed in fire," said Mario Giamei, a stocky 38-year-old fan and former bouncer at the club who ran out a side door.

Great White, a heavy metal band, had just launched into its first clanging chords when two pyrotechnic wheels began to spin on stage. Within 15 seconds, flames raced across the low-ceilinged club, black smoke billowed, and hundreds of panicked fans began to claw their way toward exit doors.

"We are a very small state, and this is a very great tragedy," Rhode Island Gov. Donald Carcieri (D) said, as he stood outside a Texaco station, across the street from the blackened remnants of the club.

Today, club owners said that Great White -- which had been scheduled to perform at a Springfield, Va., club Friday night -- did not have permission for the pyrotechnics show. But the band's lead singer and its management company told the Associated Press that the club had been informed of the plans for fireworks.

Fire officials said that neither the club nor the band had applied for the state certificates required to stage a pyrotechnic display. They added that they would never have granted such a certificate to the small club, called the Station.

"The very notion of pyrotechnics in the interior of a combustible building speaks for itself," said West Warwick Fire Chief Donald Hall.

State and federal fire officials said an investigation was underway and that criminal charges were possible, but would not discuss details.

An attorney for the Station's owners, brothers Michael and Jeffrey Derderian, said that the owners never would have agreed to the use of pyrotechnics in such a small space. Jeffrey Derderian was inside the club but escaped.

"No permission was ever requested by the band or its agents to use pyrotechnics at the Station," said the statement from attorney Kathleen M. Hagerty. "And no permission was ever given."

At least one longtime customer, however, said that it was not the first time he had seen pyrotechnics in the Station. Chris Travis said that at a concert at the nightclub last November or December, a band used a small display that set off a small fire.

"A member of the staff came up with a fire extinguisher and put it out right away," Travis said. "I didn't think anything of it."

Lead singer Jack Russell said the band's managers had told the club that pyrotechnics were part of the show. And, the AP quoted Paul Woolnough, president of Manic Music Management and Knight Records, the band's managers, as saying, "the tour manager always checks that [pyrotechnics are] able to be used and that the club authorizes it. If there's any issue at all, then it isn't used."

The band had been scheduled to play at Jaxx in Springfield on Friday night. Club owner Jay Nedry said Great White's tour manager asked about allowing pyrotechnics and "I told him no, we don't allow it." He said the band has played the club 15 times since 1989 without fireworks.

But Great White had set off similar pyrotechnics twice in the past month. On Feb. 7 in Florida at Pinellas Expo Center, they ignited pyrotechnics. The manager, Tim Bryant, said the band never told him of its intent.

Bryant said the band sneaked the pyrotechnics onto the stage. "We never had anybody sneak it up on the stage," Bryant said. But, he added, the center had 30-foot-high ceilings, and the band played without incident.

On Feb. 14, the band used pyrotechnics again, this time at the Stone Pony nightclub in Asbury Park, N.J., a place made famous by Bruce Springsteen. That club's owner, Domenic Santana, said he never allows such fireworks in his club, and expressly prohibits it in the contract with the bands.

"We do not allow pyrotechnics because of our ceiling height," said Santana.

In Great White's case, Santana said, his stage manager ran over as soon as the fireworks went off. The manager "says 'What the hell are you doing? You cannot do this here. You basically have to leave,' " Santana said. "They argued back and forth, they stopped the pyros, and the show went on."

After the show, Santana said his employees told the band: " 'What you did is wrong here. You're dealing with people's lives.' We told them 'you'll never play here again.' "

In Rhode Island, Great White apparently used a common form of pyrotechnics known as a gerb, a cardboard casing filled with premixed chemicals, including one similar to gunpowder. It spins and shoots sparks that are not supposed to be hot enough to burn a person but can set fire to flammable materials. The band was using a "gerb fan," a trio of gerbs pointing in different directions.

Zach Percell, owner of Z11 Pyro Supply, said that gerbs are generally used in large arenas and stadium shows. "It's a pretty large effect to use in a club that size," said Percell, referring to the Station.

Gov. Carcieri had a similar assessment. "You know that building," he said. "To set it off in there was not a good idea."

The nightclub apparently had the required number of fire extinguishers, fire officials said. The building did not have water sprinklers. Under Rhode Island law, only buildings erected after 1974 are required to have sprinklers. The nightclub was constructed in the late 1950s as a restaurant.

It was, Fire Chief Hall said, a fatal, if legal, flaw. "If there were sprinklers in that building, we wouldn't be standing here now," he said.

The fire at the Station was the fourth-worst nightclub fire in the nation's history, and it recalled the 21 who died in a stampede at a Chicago club last week, and the 87 who perished at the Happy Land Social Club fire in the Bronx, N.Y., in 1990.

The fire here was made all the eerier because it was caught on videotape by a cameraman for WPRI-TV, of Providence, R.I. The cameraman was preparing a report on nightclub safety. In the video, the fire is clearly seen shooting from the gerb and hitting the ceiling. It spread to sound insulation behind the band and flames began licking the walls.

The crowd seems uneasy but also unfazed -- many later said they thought the fire was part of the show -- until the flames mushroomed across the ceiling.

Russell, of Great White, told AP that he tried to put out the fire at first. "I started trying to douse it with a water bottle thinking I'm going to put it out," he said. "The next thing you know, the whole place is in flames."

Fans described a similar disorientation. "Honestly, I just thought, y'know, this was part of the act," said Brandon Fravala. "Then I heard this crackle and the flames spread across the ceiling."

By midday, hundreds of friends and families of the missing and dead gathered at the Crowne Plaza, a large hotel 10 miles north of the club. There they waited for updates, talked to counselors and Red Cross volunteers, and prayed that theirs were not among the dead.

By early evening, Tammy Ayre, of Bristol, had all but given up hope for her twin sister, Tina, who worked as a hotel housekeeper. Days earlier, Tina had run into lead singer Russell, and he gave her an autograph and free passes to the show.

"She wasn't on any of the hospital lists -- she's pretty much on the deceased list," Ayre said. "It's hard. I cry, and I don't feel a thing."

She thought of her sister and shook her head. "She was always the wild woman, and I was the preppy. I'm numb, numb."

Staff writers Christine Haughney in New York and David Segal and Tom Jackman in Washington also contributed to this report.

Firefighters carry the remains of a victim through the burnt wreckage of the Station nightclub in West Warwick, R.I.The Station nightclub in West Warwick, R.I., seen from the air Friday. Fire vehicles were still on the scene along with equipment to begin to remove the debris.Above, before the blaze, the band Great White performs, taped by a TV station for a story on nightclub safety. At right, Wendy Drown mourns the loss of friends outside the Rhode Island nightclub where at least 96 people died.