Thursday 17 October 2019

Stardust tragedy: 'I remember thinking - this is it, I will never get out of here alive'

A fresh Stardust inquest could give a community devastated by Ireland's worst-ever fire tragedy some desperately needed answers, writes Kim Bielenberg

Waiting for answers: the remains of the Stardust nightclub
Waiting for answers: the remains of the Stardust nightclub
Members of the victims committee heading to the High Court
Tragedy: Survivors of the Stardust blaze. Photo by Myles Byrne from the book Second Sight
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Years after Ireland's worst fire tragedy, many of those injured still slept with the lights on. They painstakingly checked every escape exit wherever they went, whether they were in a pub or a nightclub. As well as their physical symptoms and deep scars, they often suffered psychological effects. They were the survivors of the Stardust tragedy of February 14, 1981.

Five years after the tragedy, a report by a compensation tribunal found that most of the victims received no medical attention at all.

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It was the night when more than 840 young people went out to a ballroom disco in Artane, Co Dublin - and the night when 48 of them between the ages of 16 and 26 never returned home to their loved ones.

Relatives of the 48 people killed finally received the news that many of them were hoping for this week when the Attorney General announced the granting of a fresh inquest into the nightclub fire.

Members of the victims committee heading to the High Court
Members of the victims committee heading to the High Court

The families have campaigned for many years for it to be further investigated.

For anyone who lived through that era, the Stardust fire stands out as a tragedy that dominated the headlines. At 48, the death toll is far larger than any incident in the Troubles, but nobody has been held accountable.

The fire broke out soon after 1.30am on Valentine's Day in one of the seats in the Northside venue, which had previously been a food factory. The blaze was first spotted during a disco dancing competition.

According to one account, at 1.41am, a song by Adam and the Ants was playing as the flames were spreading to other seats. Within a short time, the blaze was at ceiling level.

In an account published by the Compensation Tribunal in 1986, a girl who was just 16 at the time of the blaze said: "I looked up, I saw sparks coming directly at us followed by flames licking their way across the ceiling. Without hesitation, I jumped up and started to run... It was then that I noticed that everyone in the place was in the same state of panic that I was in.

"Halfway across the dancefloor, the lights went out and the place started to fill up with thick heavy black smoke. It seemed thicker than a strong mist. Instantly, as soon as it hit me, I began to cough, at the same time stumbling. I remember thinking, this is it, I will never get out of here alive, never."

She added: "I heard someone calling my name and he grabbed me by the arm, although how he found me, I will never know. I remember grabbing hold of him, thinking, 'At least I am not on my own'.

"Eventually, after a lot of pulling on his part, he managed to get me through this door which led into a small hall. There was a door at the other end and he ran ahead to open it. Somewhere between that time and when we came through the first door, he fell and I lost him.

"After a few seconds, which seemed like hours, I felt his shirt and pulled. With an effort, he got back on his feet and then he tried for the second door. How he opened it, I don't know, but he did. He came back for me and had to carry me out. I had just about had it at this stage, breathing was almost impossible. We stood there and watched as people ran around in circles, some of them with flesh hanging from their bodies and faces, probably not even aware of how they looked."

The first fire appliance arrived at 1.51am, but by then 46 people had been killed and 214 injured. Two more were to die of their injuries. It took many years, and the use of DNA, before some of the bodies could be identified.

In an account many years later, one of the firefighters said: "When we were able to go in, it was obvious that the majority had died of smoke inhalation. A large number of the bodies were actually still at tables, collapsed over them."

The first tribunal into the tragedy heard there had been a practice of locking emergency exits at the venue. The inquiry also found that arson was the probable cause of the blaze. However, this was never proven and has been heavily disputed ever since.

Exhaustive treatment

In a statement issued by his office this week, the Attorney General Séamus Woulfe said that having carefully considered all aspects of the matter, he has formed the opinion that fresh inquests are advisable.

He cited a "failure to sufficiently consider those of the surrounding circumstances that concern the cause or causes of the fire".

Jimmy Fitzpatrick was just 16 when he defied medical science and endured five months of exhaustive treatment for third-degree burns to his hands, arms, neck and back.

Tragedy: Survivors of the Stardust blaze. Photo by Myles Byrne from the book Second Sight
Tragedy: Survivors of the Stardust blaze. Photo by Myles Byrne from the book Second Sight

According to an account in the Irish Independent, he suffered the worst burns and spent the longest period in hospital of all the survivors, suffered acute smoke and burn damage to his lungs, and came close to having his hands and arms amputated. He was one of the first to escape, only to return inside to help rescue two traumatised girls paralysed with fear, and simply throw them towards the doors.

It was then that he tripped, the ballroom fell into darkness, balls of thick black smoke rolled and people ran in different directions.

Terrified, they trampled on fallen bodies, including the struggling Jimmy, who pulled himself up only to move in the wrong direction and fall again.

All the while, people kicked and screamed and locked doors were frantically pulled. Skin burning and his shirt melting on his back, Jimmy pulled himself up to join a small group who were ramming against a door which finally burst open into the night-time air.

Despite the Stardust leaving a trail of emotional, psychological and social devastation, no professional counselling was ever provided by the State at the time for the victims and their families. In the 1980s, some 25 people attempted suicide in the aftermath of the tragedy, while many entered financially turbulent years because the deceased had been the family's sole breadwinner.

Interviewed by research psychologists in 1995, over half were deemed to still be ­suffering psychiatric problems, 28pc reported that their health had deteriorated and 17pc had no ­lessening of their feeling of loss since the tragedy.

The compensation tribunal concluded in 1986: "While those who were acutely injured received expert medical attention in hospital in the days and weeks following the disaster, many received not adequate medical support after their discharge and many other received no medical treatment or support of any kind."

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