Stardust Disaster: A fire in a Dublin nightclub kills 48 people
The Stardust fire was a fatal fire which took place at the Stardust nightclub in Artane, Dublin, Ireland in the early hours of 14 February 1981. Some 841 people had attended a disco there, of whom 48 died and 214 were injured as a result of the fire. The club was located where Butterly Business Park now lies, opposite Artane Castle Shopping Centre.
The fire was started in a first floor store room inside the building that was open to the roofspace. The fire outbreak derived from an electrical fault in the room beside the roof space. This non Planning compliant first floor storage room contained dangerously flammable materials including 45x5 gallon drums of cooking oil. (See 2009 Coffey Report witness) Staff observed a small fire outbreak on a seat in an alcove behind a curtain and they attempted to extinguish it but failed. The fire apparently started after fire on the roof from the storeroom came through the roof tiles and fell on to the backrest and the top of a seating bench covered in PVC coated polyester fabric. It was first observed by a lady who was sitting in front of the West Alcove banked seating area. She noticed an increase in temperature but did not smell smoke. The fire then spread to tables and chairs and patrons noticed smoke and smelled burning. The DJ announced that there was a small fire and requested a calm evacuation.
The fire was first spotted by a lady 200 metres away from the Stardust as well as numerous external witnesses and she called the Fire Brigade. Within the same minute of her call, two other calls were made from the Stardust building to tell the Fire Brigade that there was a small fire 6 inches high on a seat in the Ballroom in a seating area in the west section of the building. The fire was only very small when first seen in the Ballroom. Within 2 minutes a ferocious burst of heat and lots of thick black smoke quickly started coming from the ceiling, causing the material in the ceiling to melt and drip on top of patrons and other highly flammable materials including the seats and carpet tiles on the walls. The fire Flashover enveloped the club and the lights failed. This caused mass panic as patrons began desperately looking for an escape.
The attendees at a trade union function taking place in the same building made their escape but the escape of some of the Stardust patrons was hampered by a number of obstructions. Some of the main fire exits had chains draped about the push bars and were difficult to open.
The failure of the lighting in the club led to widespread panic causing mass trampling as many of the patrons instinctively ran for the main entrance. Many people mistook the entrance to the men's toilets for the main entrance doors but the windows there had metal plates fixed on the inside and iron bars on the outside. Firemen attempted in vain to pull off the metal bars using a chain attached to a fire engine. Firemen rescued between 25-30 of those trapped in the front toilets.
Ambulances from Dublin Fire Brigade, the Eastern Health Board, Dublin Civil Defence, the Red Cross, the Order of Malta Ambulance Corps and St John Ambulance Ireland were dispatched to the scene. Many ambulances left the scene carrying up to 15 casualties. CIE also sent buses to transport the injured, and local radio stations asked people in the vicinity with cars to come to the club. The city's hospitals were overwhelmed by the influx of injured and dying, in particular the Mater, Jervis Street and Dr Steevens' Hospitals.
The investigation at the time reported that the fire was an arson. The finding of arson has recently been ruled out by investigators, as there was never any evidence to support the arson finding, even at the time of the tragedy.
There has been a huge cover up as to the cause of so many fatalities. There was a meeting before the public inquiry in 1981 of all of the experts including the Judge when the concept of arson was determined to be the cause to protect the Dublin Corporation from having to pay out millions in compensation to the victims and families. The Coolock Garda investigation was excellent but the Tribunal distorted the evidence. The Inquiry Report and the team of experts and coached witnesses conspired to conceal the truth and determined arson to be the cause without any evidence.
A total of 48 people died in the fire. The community, with most of the dead coming from Artane, Kilmore and greater Coolock, was devastated, with many people being affected in some way. A tribunal of inquiry under Mr. Justice Ronan Keane concluded in November 1981 that the fire was probably caused by arson. This finding, which has been disputed ever since, legally exonerated the owners from responsibility. However, the inquiry was damning in its criticism of the safety standards. See below for more on factual disputes.
The families of the victims and survivors fought in the courts for compensation, accountability, and, in their eyes, justice. The owners, the Butterly family, were nevertheless free to pursue their own claim for compensation against the city because of the arson finding - and were eventually awarded IR£580,000.
The aftermath led to a huge number of recommendations being made in relation to fire safety. Comparisons were made to the Summerland disaster of 1973 in the Isle of Man and the lessons learned in that jurisdiction. However, some basic rules, such as the provision of fire extinguishers and fire exits being left unblocked and obviously posted, which have since been implemented, could probably have prevented many deaths if they had existed at the time.
In 2006 the leaseholder and manager of the Stardust at the time of the fire, Eamon Butterly, planned to re-open licensed premises on the site of the Stardust on the 25th anniversary. Described as "insensitive", this action occasioned protests by the victims' families and their supporters. The protests lasted for 10 weeks and ended when the Butterly family agreed to erect a memorial on the site, and change the name of the pub from "The Silver Swan" to the "Artane House". In 2007, the bodies of five victims whom authorities had been unable to identify were exhumed from a communal plot in St. Fintan's Cemetery, Sutton. The remains were identified with modern DNA analysis, and then given separate burials.
"They Never Came Home"
In July 1985, Irish folk singer Christy Moore was found guilty of contempt of court after writing and releasing a song, entitled "They Never Came Home", about the plight of the Stardust fire victims, seemingly damning the owners of the nightclub and the government. It contained the following lines:
In a matter of seconds confusion did reign.
The room was in darkness, fire exits were chained.
Hundreds of children are injured and maimed,
and all just because the fire exits were chained.
Because it appeared to imply that the obstruction of the exits was solely responsible for the deaths and injuries, the song was banned and removed from the Ordinary Man album it had appeared on. As the album had just been released, it had to be withdrawn from circulation and re-issued with "Another Song is Born" in its place. Early versions of this album are considered rare and collectible.
The lyrics of the song are still "banned" in Ireland as libelous. Christy Moore was prosecuted, although he has since been known to sing the song on occasion.
This song was played for 10 weeks outside the "Silver Swan" as part of the protest over the re-opening of the pub in 2006. It was played every night from 6PM until 8PM whilst the families and supporters demonstrated in front of the filling station. The song was reputedly played for so long that three tapes failed, leading the protesters to use a CD player, which failed after eight days. They then resorted to an MP3 player (connected to an amplifier), which lasted for the duration of the protest before failing a week later.
2006 television drama
In 2006, Ireland's national broadcaster, Radio Telefís Éireann (RTÉ), caused controversy by producing a docu-drama about the disaster entitled Stardust, to mark the 25th anniversary of the incident. The series was based on the book They Never Came Home: The Stardust Story by Neil Fetherstonhaugh and Tony McCullagh. Many families of victims objected to this and were upset by the painful memories it brought up. Reasons for objection were the focus on some key families, which some felt portrayed the disaster as only really impacting a select few, the depiction of the actual fire and a silent roll call of all the victims who perished. A preview of this drama was shown to relatives in early February 2006 and after some minor changes it was broadcast on 12 and 13 February 2006. Those changes include: The silent roll call being changed to one where all names were read out by survivor Jimmy Fitzpatrick and a voice-over being used to explain throughout the narrative that this impacted a lot more families and individuals than those portrayed predominantly in the film.
An edition of Prime Time, RTÉ's current affairs programme, broadcast on 14 February 2006, cast doubts on some of the findings of the original tribunal. The programme produced witnesses who were outside the building on the night. Some outside saw fire coming from the roof up to eight minutes before those inside did. New evidence concerning the building's contents and layout was also presented. Important details were also shown regarding the actual location of a store room containing flammable materials and cleaning agents. The document plan of the building which the tribunal used, and which was critical to its findings, was shown to be confusingly flawed by locating the store room on the wrong level. It showed the store room to be "over the basement", but there was no basement in the building, and the store and lamp rooms were located in the roof space on the first floor.
The list of contents of the store was not put before the inquiry and included large amounts of highly flammable and spontaneously combustible materials, mostly polishes and floor waxes, with the inquiry assuming only normal everyday items were inside.
A re-enactment of the fire suggested that it did not happen as the tribunal had found. The conclusions of the show were that the fire started in the roof space where the store room was located and had already spread across the main nightclub roof space area before those inside were aware of it. Furthermore, there were reports that the lamp room adjacent to the store had had several instances in preceding weeks of smouldering, smoking and sparking of the electrical installations within, which could conceivably have been the original ignition source. If this is true, the original finding of "probable arson" is in doubt.
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