No evidence was found by gardaí that the 1981 Stardust fire was “malicious”, inquests into the deaths heard on Monday.
Day 91 of the inquests at Dublin Coroner’s Court heard the exhaustive efforts by gardaí to establish the cause of the blaze at the north Dublin nightclub in the early hours of February 14th, 1981 in which 48 people aged between 16 and 27 died.
A total of 1,649 witness statements were taken and 89 gardaí involved in the investigation, not including specialists from the Garda technical bureau, said Detective Superintendent John Courtney, who led the investigation and took charge of the daily conferences.
In his 1981 statements, read into the court record as he is unavailable, he said part of the work was “to try and establish the exact location of the fire and how it occurred”.
The fire was first seen inside the ballroom at about 1.40am on seats in a sectioned-off area known as the West alcove. Among those interviewed were “people who were within the curtained off area prior to the fire”. They “were checked out and eliminated as likely suspects,” said Det Supt Courtney.
Anyone sitting near the area was interviewed. In addition “all likely suspects such as the Dragon and Soap gang who attended the disco” were checked “in great detail” and nothing found to indicate their involvement.
Anyone known to have previously been involved in arson was “checked and eliminated”, as were four young people who had climbed on the roof early in the night
All doormen, bouncers, barmen, waitresses, DJs and other employees were interviewed, as well as premises owner Patrick Butterly and manager Eamon Butterly. “From the 1,649 statements taken, no evidence came to light which would indicate the fire was malicious,” said the witness.
Despite this, the tribunal of investigation into the disaster, chaired later that year by Mr Justice Ronan Keane, concluded the “probable explanation of the fire is that it was caused deliberately”. This finding was removed from the public record in 2009.
The inquests heard chains and padlocks were found still intact and hanging from exits doors about an hour after the blaze was extinguished and bodies had been removed from the building.
Detective Inspector William Roynane, attached to Coolock Garda station, began inspecting exit doors at 3.30am, with Inspector Michael Curran and Sergeant Thomas Carty.
In his statement, read into the record, Det Insp Roynane said they inspected exits one, two, three, four and five, but not six. Of exit one, he said: “I saw a chain with both ends locked together with a padlock hanging on the panic bolt on the right half of the door as one emerges.”
On exit two, the main exit from the foyer, he said: “a number of panes of glass were broken” in each of the double doors. At exit three, from the backstage area, a panic bolt was missing from left hand door. “A chain secured with a padlock was hanging on the right half of the door”.
At exit four, off the main ballroom: “The panic bolt was intact and had a chain secured with a pad lock, hanging on the panic bolt” and at exit five the panic bar was missing from the left half. “A chain secured by a padlock was hanging on panic bolt of right half of door as one emerges,” he said.
‘Lost sight of him’
In direct evidence, Douglas Doyle who was 17 at the time, said he and his friend Eamon Loughman (19) who died in the fire, were “very close” to exit 5 when they lost each other. They had been sitting in tiered seating in the north alcove when they saw the fire and quickly decided to make for the exit by running over tabletops down to the main floor.
He told the court “my friend Eamon” was ahead of him. At the last table he fell to the floor and the lights went out. “When I fell I lost sight of him ... I assumed because he was ahead of me that he got out.
“I got up. I couldn’t see anything. I felt the person in front of me. I had my hand on that person’s shoulder and seconds after that I fell though the exit on to the floor ... through exit five.
“There was a lot of people outside. I literally fell to the ground outside, but when I got up and looked back in the entire building was on fire ... There was a girl lying face down about 15 feet inside the door. She was kicking and struggling. Then her clothes just seemed to disappear and she stopped moving.
“By the grace of God I fell out that door. I was very lucky,” he told the court.
Mr Loughman, from Beaumont, was one of five victims whose remains were unidentified until 2007.
Taxi driver Robert O’Callaghan, in his 1981 statements, said he saw flames “about 30 feet high” from the roof of the Stardust as he approached it, between 1.35 and 1.40am.
“I went into the car park ... I got out of the car an approached the front entrance ... There was nobody outside the building. I was about to knock on the front door when it opened and people came casually walking out with drinks in their hands. I told them the place was on fire and someone answered me [that] they knew and were being evacuated.
“About a minute later a few girls came out screaming,” his statement said.
“I went to the door and watched people trickling out. I told people coming out to clear the door and let the people out from behind. At this stage there was no panic.”
Some girls asked him to take them to a destination. They passed fire brigade on the way, on the Malahide Road. “At this stage I was not aware the fire was serious,” he said.
The inquests continue.