Eamon Butterly, former manager of the Stardust nightclub in north Dublin in which 48 young people died in a fire in 1981, said he was “devastated” at “graphic” descriptions of chaos and panic as people struggled to escape through exits.
Giving evidence on Friday at fresh inquests into the deaths, Mr Butterly (78) insisted, however, that he “still” believed the head doorman, his late uncle Thomas Kennan, had opened the emergency exits on the night.
During his second day in the witness box, he told Michael O’Higgins, SC, for the families of 10 of the dead, that neither he nor his father, the late Patrick Butterly was aware of fire regulations, adding no one told them of them.
“I am going to be suggesting to you there were lots of laws in place directing you what to do ... They went back to 1967,” said Mr O’Higgins.
“But I didn’t know about them .. and neither did my father or anyone else know about them,” said Mr Butterly.
Mr O’Higgins read dozens of descriptions from those who escaped, of chaotic scenes at exits indicating they were locked or jammed or obstructed. He said “far from” them being easy to exit through, the scenes were “completely chaotic”.
“You’d agree with that?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Mr Butterly.
Mr O’Higgins read findings by gardaí following a forensic examination of the entrance doors, known as exit 2, after the fire. “The mortice lock was engaged. The left door was bolted into place. The doorknob had been pulled off on the right hand side and there were boot marks on the door. Is that not a very graphic picture of people who could not get off the premises when the fire was raging?”
“It does. It’s shocking,” said Mr Butterly.
“Can we chalk exit number 2 as a fail?”
“You can chalk it as a fail,” said Mr Butterly, but added he could not understand how, if one of the doormen – Frankie Downes – had opened it, it was locked.
“You seem to ignore all the other [witness] accounts,” said Mr O’Higgins.
“Oh, I do not ... I am devastated,” said Mr Butterly.
Asking Mr Butterly about the decision, weeks before the fire, to weld metal screens and bars to seal toilet windows, Mr O’Higgins said people were “trapped” and “effectively interred in that space.”
The windows had been sealed, because they were “being broken on a regular basis ... The steel was put on to stop [customers] handing in the drink and weapons, and [so] you didn’t have to keep replacing glass”.
“You see, Mr Butterly, a lot of people went into the toilets to try and escape and they were met by the welded plates,” said Mr O’Higgins.
“Yes, I understand that.”
“There are vivid descriptions of a fire engine using steel ropes to try and pull the bars off the windows.”
“Yes, I appreciate that as well. Why wouldn’t they?”
“So, do you think locking the toilets up like that, a bit of an overreaction?”
“In hindsight, but at the time the toilets were toilets. They weren’t fire escapes.”
“But what about foresight ... what about someone saying, ‘Before we weld these plates to windows, before we turn it into a fortress, what’s going to happen if there’s a fire?”
“There wasn’t foresight ... The toilets weren’t fire escapes,” said Mr Butterly.
Forthcoming expert evidence about the role carpet-tiles used to line internal walls played in the rapid spread of the fire was put to Mr Butterly.
The two experts’ reports, said Mr O’Higgins, suggested that had the carpet-tiles complied with the conditions laid out by Dublin Corporation at the time, the fire that started on a single seat “would not be capable of spreading to adjacent seats and thus develop to a size that created untenable conditions”.
Mr Butterly agreed these reports were “important”.
The witness continues his evidence on Tuesday.
‘Under the bus’
Earlier, he denied “throwing” his late uncle, a head doorman, “under the bus” by insisting his uncle had locked emergency exits despite being instructed not to.
He was asked about apparent contradictions between his 1981 Garda statements and his evidence on Thursday, as to whether there was a policy of locking emergency exits until as late as midnight.
In his October 1981 statement, Mr Butterly said for “security reasons I normally arranged for [exit doors 1,5 and 6] to be unlocked about 11.30pm” and this had been a “policy” in place for about “two or three weeks” before the fire.
In evidence to the inquests on Thursday, however, he said he had instructed head doorman, the late Thomas Kennan, to stop this, adding if he had seen any emergency exit locked while there were patrons inside there would have been “trouble”.
Michael O’Higgins, SC for the families of ten of those who late, asked Mr Butterly why neither he nor Mr Kennan had said in either their Garda statements or at the tribunal of investigation into the disaster in 1981, that Mr Kennan had been locking exits on his own initiative and had been told to stop.
“If it was the case that Mr Kennan had done all this on his own and was being told to stop doing it, firstly he would have told the tribunal that,” said Mr O’Higgins. “If he hadn’t it would have been put to him, if that was what he was doing. But it never was. Do you follow me?”
“I follow you, yes,” said Mr Butterly.
“And you never said anything in your evidence to the tribunal that, ‘Look, I knew nothing about this. He was off doing his own thing’. I mean, you wouldn’t be throwing Tom under the bus here, would you?”
“What do you mean, throwing him under the bus? I’m not throwing ...”
Interjecting, Mr O’Higgins said: “By coming in here and saying, ‘This was all Tom Kennan’s doing. It was nothing to do with me, I tried to stop him’. That’s throwing him under the bus.”
Mr O’Higgins asked him if it was true, that Mr Kennan had locked doors on his own initiative.
“Yes,” said Mr Buttlery.
Having reread extracts from Mr Butterly’s 1981 Garda statement, Mr O’Higgins asked him “which version” did he wish to “back”.
“The one I said yesterday,” said Mr Butterly. “Or if you want to go ahead [with the 1981 statement]. I don’t know.”
“Well, in fairness, it’s not what I want. It’s your account. It’s your evidence. So which one are you backing. The choice is: ‘It was a policy that I put in place and I instructed my staff’, or, ‘Tom Kennan was doing this all on his own initiative’. Which are you going for?”
“I am going for the one that Tom Kennan was doing it on his own initiative.”
“OK, that’s fine. We will investigate that further.”
Mr O’Higgins asked Mr Butterly if he had been a “no nonsense” businessman.
“I suppose. I was fair,” said Mr Butterly. He agreed that could include firing people to protect the company’s interests.
Asked why he had not fired Mr Kennan if he had been locking exits despite being told not to, he said: “I didn’t fire Tom Kennan because Tom Kennan was my father’s brother-in-law. Tom Kennan was my uncle. And that is why he was employed. He was an honourable person.”
“What would be honourable about locking doors in a nightclub? On the basis of the evidence you gave here yesterday you were sufficiently aware of the danger of that to tell him to stop doing it.”
“And he refused?”
“He did eventually. He did stop.”
“Sorry, the doors were locked on the night – 1, 5 and 6 – up to midnight, and later.”
“Tom Kennan told me he opened them at 11.30.”
“He didn’t actually .. It is quite clear you didn’t even ask him to do it until after midnight ... That’s what you told the tribunal.”
Asked again if Mr Kennan’s refusal to stop locking exits was not a “sacking offence”, he said: “Well, I wasn’t going to sack Tom Kennan. That’s for sure.”
Mr Butterly’s evidence continues.