Firemen who were first on the scene at the 1981 Stardust fire which killed 48 people will begin giving what is expected to be graphic and harrowing evidence at fresh inquests into the deaths on Friday.
Families of the 48 – who were aged between 16 and 27 when the blaze engulfed the north Dublin nightclub in the early hours of February 14th, 1981 – have been warned evidence will include graphic descriptions of victims’ remains being found, and advised to consider whether they wish to be present in court.
Proceedings will open on Friday with a presentation by the legal team for coroner Dr Myra Cullinane on the emergency response to the blaze, which will include video footage taken on the night. Although this will not show imagery in which victims are identifiable, families have been advised it could be upsetting to see.
Some five former Dublin Fire Brigade firemen are due to give direct evidence on Friday as the inquests move on to its third module. The inquests, under way at Dublin Coroner’s Court since April, are divided into four modules.
Thursday heard most of the final pieces of testimony from patrons and member of the public who saw the fire, who made up the second module. The first, completed in September, comprised staff and those involved in the construction and management of the Stardust, while the fourth will hear from expert witnesses.
Among those heard from on Thursday was Stephen Keogh, who was at the Stardust with married couple Maureen (23) and Francis (25) Lawlor, who perished. The couple are survived by their daughter Lisa Lawlor.
In his 1981 Garda statements – read into the record as he was unavailable to testify – Mr Keogh said he had no money at the time and Maureen paid for his entry ticket, while Francis and other friends bought him some drinks. The group had driven to the club that night in Francis’s white Triumph car.
When the fire was first seen “Mrs Lawlor and Pauline Reid was out dancing”. The group decided to leave. “Fran Lawlor got his wife’s bag and coat and went down to the dance floor to find her.” Mr Keogh went to a passageway near the stage. “The smoke was very thick. I covered my mouth with my overcoat to stop myself coughing.”
He followed the crowd towards exit three but ended up in the ladies’ toilets where about six people were “screaming, roaring, choking”. He got out and to a passageway to an exit where about 20 people were banging “trying to get out”. He tried to open the door but couldn’t.
“I then walked about three yards from the door and lay down on the floor beside a girl and put my coat over me. I thought this was the end and I prepared to die...The others were still banging at the door...I could see the flames inside in the club but it did not come into the passageway. In a minute or two I heard someone say ‘grab him’ and people grabbed me and pulled me outside into the yard.”
Joseph Halligan, 18 at the time, was at the Stardust with Richie Bennet (17) and danced with Julie McDonnell (20) who both perished. He decided to leave at about 1.15am and “asked Richie to come”.
“He was pleading with me to hold and wait a while. I said I was going and said ‘goodbye’ to him.” He went to the main exit but it was locked and the shutter was down. He went back to the table to Richie and watched the rest of the dance competition. He decided to leave again at about 1.40am, and asked Richie to “come on home” but he wouldn’t. “He was fairly drunk and remained behind on his own.” Mr Halligan got a taxi home.
At about 2am two girls, Lorraine McDonnell – Julie’s sister – and Sue Peyton called to his house, telling him about the fire. “Both had burns on their arms and the clothes were burnt as well.” They went back to the Stardust which was “in flames”.
He could not find Julie. “Richie Bennet is still missing and is believed to be one of the people who is not yet identified,” he said in his 1981 Garda statement read into the record on Thursday.
Noeline Dillion, 16 at the time, was there with Marcella McDermott (16) who perished. She saw “flames go up along the wall to the ceiling”.
“I ran with Marcella to exit number three but before I got there Marcella was gone. I fell on the floor.” She managed to get to exit three and someone pulled her out.
Denis Stout was at the club with friends and siblings, including his brother John Stout (18) and his girlfriend Helena Mangan (22), who both perished. Helena is survived by her daughter Samantha Curran. “At 1.30am I left the Stardust ... Everything was all right at that time,” he said in his 1981 statement.
The inquests continue.
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