Harrowing evidence from firefighters on the recovery of bodies, some “fused together”, from the 1981 Stardust fire was heard on Friday at Dublin coroner’s court.
Dermot Dowdall, a 26 year-old firefighter with Dublin Fire Brigade at the time of the disaster, gave evidence at fresh inquests into the deaths of 48 people, aged 16 to 27, in a fire at the Artane ballroom in the early hours of February 14th, 1981. He was one of three firefighters giving evidence on Friday.
The first of the emergency responders who attended the Stardust disaster to appear at the inquests, Mr Dowdall said by the time he arrived at the scene of the inferno, at 1.49am – about six minutes after the first 999 call was received – the fire had already “largely vented itself” and most of those killed on the night “had already been deceased at that stage”.
“I would regard the fire as being out at that stage. The fire essentially reached its peak very, very quickly before a brigade ever got there,” he said. “Even on first arrival the main fire was done. There was still a lot of heat but from a technical point of view ... the intensity of the fire was such that it had done all that damage in five minutes.”
With a premises the size of the Stardust, he added, firefighters would expect to be fighting the blaze for several hours.
He told the court he had taken a call at 1.43am in Tara Street fire station from John Fitzsimons, an off-duty DFB colleague who was inside the Stardust – where he worked as a part-time doorman. Mr Fitzsimons told him there was a serious fire – known as a “district call”.
“[He said] there was over 800 people in the building and that it would be hard to get them all out. ‘I am giving you a district call’. He repeated ‘it’s a district call’.” The sense was, however, it would likely turn into the most serious class of big emergency known as a “brigade call”.
“I started to tell a sub-officer, and I heard John Fitzsimons on the phone again saying, ‘I can’t stay. Send loads of ambulances.’”
He arrived, driving a DFB ambulance, and took nine people to St James’s Hospital, some of them very badly burnt, returning at sometime after 2.30am by which time the fire was mostly extinguished.
“We entered the building through exit number six and began the search the burnt-out seats ... We found two or three bodies, seated and fused together, between the seats at the back of the seats ... It was gruesome work.” Bodies were taken out and lined up “in a very long line” on the ground outside.
He and a colleague searched the area in front of the main stage. Shown a floor-plan of the venue in the court, Mr Dowdall pointed to the dance floor area where they found “a group in a huddle basically all welded together” he said.
He believed “they were caught out by the speed of the events. The sheer reaction was defensive, that they grabbed one another, got their heads down and [would] not know too much after that”.
He brought two bodies to the city morgue, he said. “I brought Thelma Frazer and a person we couldn’t tell whether they were male or woman ... I remember seeing Thelma Frazer inside because of her earrings,” he said. Thelma Frazer, from Sandymount, was 20.
Dr Cullinane said the second body was that of Michael Griffiths (17), from Kilmore.
Patrick Hobbs, 36 at the time, was acting fire officer at Tara Street fire station. He was in the first turnout of fire tenders, leaving the station at 1.44am. Five units were at the Stardust when his arrived within 10 minutes.
‘It was an inferno’
He went first to exit four, at the side of the building, where he saw “white, white flame. It was an inferno. There was no way anyone could have entered.”
Wearing breathing apparatus he got inside the main entrance and to the gents’ toilets. “I saw about five people ... cuddled together. One fellah was in a collapsed condition on his own in the urinal., Some of the others came towards me. They were all overcome by smoke.” He and colleagues got them all out.
Continuing a search of the main dance floor area, he “found two dead bodies ... very badly burned. I could not tell if they were male or woman”. In a seating area he found “several dead bodies... completely unrecognisable”.
Noel Hosback, a 31 year-old firefighter in Tara Street station at the time, was on a tender that got to the scene about 2am. It was “bedlam” and it difficult to get the tender on to the site which was “thronged with people” and cars arriving. The only people who might still be saved were in the toilets, he said, as the roof over the inner-venue had collapsed in.
His first action was to climb in through windows at the front and following a passageway, he got to the ladies’ toilets. He kicked in the door and there were three people, overcome with smoke, all of whom survived.
He got further people out of the gents’. Having changed his breathing apparatus he went into toilets near exit 5 at the side of the building. A male, crouched at the toilet doors was dead. Inside was a pile of people. One person appeared to be breathing.
“They weren’t burnt. They were blackened.” He helped bring them outside, to be lain out and tended to by first responders. He found two bodies “entwined” around each other. He did not know how many survived.
“It something we had never come across before. We didn’t want to leave bodies there. We weren’t able to help the dead but to take them outside into the air, we seemed to be doing something.”
The inquests continue.
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