Monday 14 October 2019

'Stardust has been a scar for almost four decades - hopefully it can be healed'

'Families have gone through anguish and torment,' says survivor

The roof of the Stardust nightclub, which was gutted in the blaze
The roof of the Stardust nightclub, which was gutted in the blaze
Burns: Stardust survivor Jimmy Fitzpatrick. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Laura Lynott

Laura Lynott

One of the survivors of the Stardust tragedy said he hoped a "scar" on the face of Dublin can "finally be healed" as the families prepare for a fresh inquest almost 40 years later.

Jimmy Fitzpatrick was just 16 when he endured not only the Artane nightclub blaze but five months of treatment for third-degree burns to his hands, arms, neck and back.

He suffered terrible burns and spent the longest period in hospital of all the survivors, with acute smoke and burn damage to his lungs, and he came close to having his hands and arms amputated.

Mr Fitzpatrick told the Irish Independent: "The Stardust has been a scar on Dublin and Ireland for almost four decades. Hopefully that scar can finally be healed.

"We are akin to Hillsborough, hard done by and the government at the time and the original tribunal blamed us for the atrocity by pointing the finger at us, saying it was culpable arson. To point the finger at us was an easy way to scapegoat us. Shame on them. From the very beginning this was the downfall of the State."

Mr Fitzpatrick joined with the families of the 48 young people who died in Ireland's worst fire as they looked forward with hope and anticipation to a fresh inquest finally given the green light by Attorney General Séamus Woulfe on Wednesday.

"Families have gone through anguish and torment for nearly four decades, it's a shame and a damning indictment on this country for being blasé with the truth," Mr Fitzpatrick said. "Had this happened in D4 rather than D5 there would have been a very different outcome.

"It was 'forget about them, they're gone' but we won't go away 'til justice prevails."

The inquest is expected to be the biggest in Irish history and to last for several weeks, if not longer. But as of yet, there is no date as to when it is expected to get under way. And the families revealed they are in no hurry to rush for a date, preferring to plan well ahead.

There will be a vast number of witnesses called, according to Darragh Mackin, from Phoenix Law, the solicitors representing the families.

These are expected to include eyewitnesses and independent witnesses.

Mr Mackin said despite the passage of time, cases in Northern Ireland had already shown how answers and resolution could be achieved in historic incidents.

Some of the family members had battled mobility issues and age to continue the fight for justice for the 48.

Maurice Frazer, whose sister Thelma (20) perished with her boyfriend Michael Farrell (22), lost not only his sibling but his parents, Arthur and Kathleen, who died "at young ages" from heart attacks only a few years after the tragedy. Mr Frazer, from Sandymount, south Dublin, is convinced his parents "died of broken hearts" after losing Thelma and gaining no answers.

"I lost my sister and then my parents from broken hearts because of the emotional pressure of it all," he said.

"They are as much victims as anyone else. They died and left seven boys and one sister, orphans. The youngest, Eric, was only five.

"It never goes away, the minute you turn on the TV and see the poor people of Grenfell, you feel it again. Hopefully there will be accountability for those people but with Stardust there has never been accountability, I was never interviewed and we need that accountability now."

Just three weeks before the tragedy, Mr Frazer was at a function there.

"The lights went out and my vivid memory is of the darkness," he said. "I wasn't there that night but I can just imagine what my sister and her boyfriend went through and they never came out.

"We have a large extensive family still suffering. We need answers finally."

Louise McDermott, who lost two brothers, William (22) and George (18) and sister Marcella (16) in the fire, said this was "an emotional day, we never thought we'd see".

"My dad was a fireman but he wasn't on duty that night," Ms McDermott said. "He said we'd never beat the government but here we are now.

"It's going to be a long road for us but hopefully the truth will now come out and maybe finally the 48 can rest in peace. All the families, I don't know where they got the strength from, they supported one another.

"A lot of parents aren't alive now, my father isn't alive and he never thought we'd see this day but we fought and we are here. Without the public support, this couldn't have happened really."

One of the instrumental campaigners Antoinette Keegan, revealed she'd almost given up on gaining a fresh inquest.

"Two weeks ago I told my son, who's 27 and he grew up on Stardust, I'm packing it in," Ms Keegan said. "I said 'I can't do it anymore'.

"He said 'Ma, Jesus, don't do that - grandad is so proud of you'.

"This is just the first step, it's onwards and upwards, we want justice, someone to be held accountable.

"It would be nice for the families who've suffered so much, it would be nice for them to say 'I've done it, I got justice'."

Eugene Kelly, whose brother Robert (17) died in the fire, said: "We want justice for the 48, I feel they were on this journey with us. I want to wish the firemen well too.

"I've been told by some people that some of these men packed in their jobs after the fire, so I want to wish them well and thank them. They were going along picking up body parts."

Some of the families of the 48 Stardust fire dead said they had waited "too long" for justice because they were working-class people but their roots were what kept them "fighting".

Solicitor Darragh Mackin said: "For too long Stardust has been criminalised as arson... They've had to turn to the campaign and it is the families and Lynn Boylan (former Sinn Féin MEP) who've brought them to this stage.

"This is not just a legal application but an issue of considerable public interest that the facts are established.

"Today is testament to the families to continue despite the endless obstacles to campaign for the truth and justice.

"Over the years the families have been spectators... it should not have taken this long to get to this point.

"This is Ireland's biggest atrocity... the inquest will establish the truth of what happened that night.

"Today is a momentous day for these families in their quest for justice. The reality is the 48 never came home, they never got justice, they never got the truth. Today marks the start of their battle in gaining the truth."

Irish Independent

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