Stardust fire: 19 ambulances needed to bring remains of victims to morgue, inquest hears

Former Garda inspector on duty on the night of the disaster tells Dublin coroner’s court about steps taken to preserve scene and implementation of capital’s major accident plan

A total of 19 ambulances were needed to convey the remains of young people to the city morgue from the scene of 1981 Stardust disaster, Dublin coroner’s court heard on Friday.

Day 90 of fresh inquests into the deaths of 48 young people in a fire in the north Dublin nightclub in the early hours of February 14th, 1981 heard from gardaí on duty on the night about their steps to preserve the “potential crime scene” and implementation of the capital’s major accident plan.

Former Garda inspector Patrick Colleran told barrister Des Fahy, for families of nine of the dead, he was in “overall charge” of implementation of the major accident plan from Dublin Castle on the night. Stage one of the plan was implemented at 2.06am, and escalated to stage two at 2.12am.

The fire, first seen inside the ballroom at 1.40am had fully engulfed the venue by about 1.50am and was “under control” by 2.20am, the inquests heard.


Mr Colleran directed the senior officer at the scene to preserve and secure the Stardust site but could not recall this officer’s name, he said.

Mr Fahy asked him: “Did you give a direction or order that a State pathologist or the State pathologist attend at the scene?” When he did not respond, Dublin coroner Dr Myra Cullinane asked him if he recalled the then State pathologist, the late Dr John Harbison.

“Yes, I remember the name,” said Mr Colleran.

“Was the State pathologist directed by you to attend?” asked Mr Fahy again. “No,” he responded.

“Was there a provision in the major accident plan, as far as you knew, for the State pathologist to be directed or ordered to a particular scene by the guard in charge?” Mr Fahy asked.

“I would assume that it was the officer in charge at the scene that would notify the State pathologist,” Mr Colleran replied.

“You didn’t do that?” asked Mr Fahy.

“I didn’t do, no, but I wasn’t at the scene.”

Mr Colleran said at 2.33am information came through that three bodies had been found and “confirmation of the finding of other bodies was transmitted to the centre at intervals later”.

“A casualty information centre, with three special telephone numbers, was brought in to use in Dublin Castle to deal specifically with queries regarding the fire, names of the injured, casualties etc,” said the witness. “The special numbers were passed to RTÉ with a request that they be broadcast to the public in early news bulletins.”

Gardaí were directed to hospitals to gather names and addresses of arriving injured, and send these to the casualty information centre.

Thomas Vennard, a 39-year-old duty sergeant in charge of Coolock Garda station on the night, got a call at about 1.50am from Garda control about a “serious fire” at the Stardust. He co-ordinated the local Garda response from the station.

At 2.55am Inspector Michael Curran telephoned from the scene asking him to contact the then city coroner, the late Dr Patrick Bofin, to seek permission for the removal of bodies to the city morgue.

Mr Vennard said he told Dr Bofin gardaí at the scene were requesting permission to move the bodies from the scene to the city morgue. “He said, ‘Yes, go ahead,’ and he guaranteed the morgue would be accessible.

“Dr Bofin was the only person who could give instructions to remove the bodies from the scene,” Mr Vennard added.

Asked whether he had been seeking permission to remove the bodies from the site generally, or from where they had been found in the Stardust specifically, he replied: “All I was asked to do was make arrangements to get bodies moved to the morgue, whether they were outside or inside.”

Bernard McMahon, a 38-year-old sergeant at Coolock Garda station at the time, was called at home at 2.30am and directed to the scene to assist. Among his duties was to preserve and secure the scene, and oversee removal of bodies into ambulances.

“I wasn’t prepared for what I was to witness,” he said on Friday. “[Bodies] were skeletal ... they had their hands up in the air and I couldn’t decipher... most of the bodies were brought out in twos but in some cases I didn’t know if there were two or three bodies as the bodies were fused as they were being put in the ambulances.”

Patrick O’Connell, then a 22-year-old garda with the crime taskforce, was on patrol in a Garda van on Ellis Quay when directed to the Stardust at 1.55am. He arrived at 2.05am and assisted with the search for and removal of bodies, “which we placed along the wall” outside between exits five and six.

At 3.30am he and three colleagues escorted the first ambulances bringing bodies to the city morgue.

A total of 19 ambulances, provided by Dublin Fire Brigade, the Eastern Health Board, St Bricin’s Military Hospital, the Knights of Malta, Waverley ambulance service and Dublin Airport fire service, conveyed 39 victims’ remains to the morgue in Store Street. The final ambulance arrived 4.05am. Nine further victims died in hospital.

“We made space inside the morgue by moving trolleys to try to accommodate the large amount of bodies that had been brought in,” said Mr O’Connell. “There were eventually [39] bodies lying throughout the morgue. A number of army men then arrived and began to erect a tent in the yard of the morgue. I remained on duty until 7am when were relieved by members from Store Street.”

The inquests continue.

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times