A former fireman has “often wondered what type of person” he would have been if he had not attended the 1981 Stardust inferno that killed 48 people.
Noel Keegan, a 30-year-old member of Dublin Fire Brigade (DFB) attached to Tara Street station on the night of the blaze, was among the first firemen on the scene in the early hours of February 14th, 1981, arriving at about 1.55am.
Dublin coroner’s court, where fresh inquests into the deaths of 48 people, aged 16 to 27, in a fire in the north Dublin nightclub are under way, heard Mr Keegan’s graphic descriptions on Thursday of finding one body “burnt to a cinder” and a body with its intestines showing during a search of the building in the immediate aftermath of the blaze.
Day 89 of the inquests heard a series of harrowing testimonies from firemen, most of them read into the record as the witnesses were unavailable, including descriptions of the conditions and locations of bodies they found.
Mr Keegan had initially been asked to locate a water hydrant on Kilmore Road, but was unable to due to parked cars. He returned to the Stardust and, wearing a breathing apparatus, entering through exit five.
“I heard someone shout, ‘There are bodies in here’,” he said. “I went to the toilets on the right-hand side between exits five and six. I found six to eight bodies piled up on top of each other. We carried them out as fast as we could because we did not know if they were alive or dead. They didn’t appear to be burnt or blackened ... I am sure one of the bodies was that of a female. The others I could not be sure.
“I then found a body inside the same toilets and this body was burnt to a cinder.” He carried this out and continued “a systematic search for other bodies”.
“We took one body from inside exit number six on the left. This body was still on fire. There were four bodies on the main line inside exit six. [Fireman] Terry Fitzpatrick found an arm and leg on the stage which I brought outside.”
He “clearly remembered” a body near the toilets which he believed he and colleagues may have “walked over as we were removing bodies from the toilets ... It was burnt beyond recognition and the intestines were showing” he said in a 1981 Garda statement read into the record.
The witness had indicated his desire to read a personal statement to the jury after his testimony, but was too upset. He provided it to The Irish Times afterwards.
It said: “The Stardust fire took the lives of 48 young people. But it left many more damaged with both seen and unseen injuries. These too are victims of the Stardust.
“The families of those who survived are also victims ... as are their families. But just to keep in mind that the emergency personnel who attended on the night are also victims of the Stardust. From a personal point of view, I often wondered what type of person I would have been had I not experienced that night – what kind of husband, father, son, brother and friend I might have been.
“Make no mistake and remember, the Stardust changed every person it touched.”
Mr Keegan was one of four witnesses giving direct evidence on Thursday.
Matthew Quinn, a 33-year-old Garda stationed in Santry at the time of the disaster was driving a patrol car with another Garda, Pater Fallon, when they received a call from central control in Dublin Castle at 1.47am directing them to go to the nightclub. Approaching from Swords Road he could see the “whole sky ... lit up red or orange from all sides”.
Arriving at about 1.50am they were the first Garda car, and there just before the first DFB vehicle.
“There was complete panic”, with people shouting and screaming, said Mr Quinn. They parked in front of the building. Garda Fallon got out of the car and returned, telling him to “get a fleet of ambulances there immediately”.
A taxi-driver approached offering help. He asked him to contact his control to “get a fleet of taxis”.
“The taxi men that night were absolutely brilliant. They came from all sides of the city,” said Mr Quinn on Thursday. He “took it upon [himself]” to start bringing people to hospital as the patrol car was the “first transport” there. He took six walking-wounded to the Mater, in two trips.
“I put one in the front seat. I put two in the back seat. I went to put a third person in but because they couldn’t touch one another, they were screeching, I had to get that person to leave.
“The blisters that were on their arms were large. Some of them had burst and the skin had fallen down over their fingers ... like you’d peel a banana. It was terrible. Hair was burnt. All I could think of was getting them to hospital.”
When the Mater could take no more injured, ambulances were directed to other hospitals. Garda Quinn gave a “blue-light escort” to a van-driver and taxi bringing injured to Jervis Street hospital, he said.
The inquests continue.