Stardust survivor: ‘We breathed toxic fumes and we picked ourselves up and went home’

Even at rest, a constant whisper accompanies Linda Bishop Hosey’s breathing — the telltale sign of lungs forced to work hard to pull in the air around her.

Stardust survivor: ‘We breathed toxic fumes and we picked ourselves up and went home’

The ill effects of the 1981 Stardust fire are still catching up with the survivors, writes Caroline O’Doherty.

Even at rest, a constant whisper accompanies Linda Bishop Hosey’s breathing — the telltale sign of lungs forced to work hard to pull in the air around her.

And then there’s the cough that developed so gradually she didn’t realise she had it until her sister used it locate her when the two became separated in a shop.

“She couldn’t see me in the crowd so she said she just stood still and listened for my cough,” Linda recalls. “I said: ‘What cough?’ I wasn’t even aware of it. It crept up on me over years.”

Linda was one of the lucky ones who went to the Valentine’s night disco at the Stardust nightclub in 1981. Somehow, despite being seated mere inches from the flames that were burning unseen behind partitions in the venue, Linda escaped.

It was a terrifying ordeal — the crush, the panic, the flames closing in from overhead and all around. Then the pitch black, a stumble to the floor and the desperation for some fresh air to fill her burning lungs.

“You’d think your brain would say ‘you’re inhaling smoke — hold your breath’, but it doesn’t,” she recalls. “It makes you breathe all the harder and every breath is like breathing in fire.

I fell out the door on to my hands and knees and vomited. And then I got up and the guards were telling people to leave and go home, that we were in the way.

She got the whole house up with her banging on the door and her smoked blackened skin but eventually she was coaxed into bed. She woke the next morning to her mother’s shaken face and the news that 46 — later to be 48 — people had died.

“I was thinking, I hope there’s no one I know. Of course there was.”

Paula Byrne, her second cousin, was one of the dead, as were the siblings and partners of friends and workmates. That reinforced Linda’s view that she was lucky and had nothing to complain about.

Her mother accompanied her to the compensation tribunal that followed and told the adjudication panel that her daughter wasn’t herself since the fire.

“I was saying, there’s nothing wrong with me, I’m fine. I was mad at her for making a fuss.” She went to one session with a counsellor and didn’t return, and was prescribed medication that she presumes was for anxiety, but which she didn’t take. But she never had a physical examination.

“If there were just a few of us, we’d probably have been taken to hospital and checked out, but the ambulances were crammed and the hospitals were bursting. And why would I be moaning and bitching when so many were dead?”

Many winters after that, Linda was struck with chest infections. She became used to saying she had a bad chest and she was prescribed antibiotics so often, it became routine.

Antoinette Keegan outside the Dáil on the anniversary of the Stardust fire last February, holding pictures of her sisters, Martina and Mary, who died in the fire.
Antoinette Keegan outside the Dáil on the anniversary of the Stardust fire last February, holding pictures of her sisters, Martina and Mary, who died in the fire.

When one antibiotic failed to clear her congestion, she was put on another one, so many that she became immune to them and she now has an active antibiotic-resistant superbug and is quarantined when in hospital.

As she got older, the bouts became more intense and dragged on longer, and she began to get out of breath doing normal things. She and her husband Alex own a restaurant and Linda loved working there but it became too hard.

And then, in 2014, she was struck with a frozen shoulder and went off to the doctors to get something for it. A locum GP was working that day and Linda rolled her eyes to heaven when this young woman said she’d prefer to get an x-ray before prescribing anything — and while they were at it, she was ordering a chest x-ray too.

She reluctantly went to hospital, had the x-rays and was told she was being referred to the respiratory department.

“I was getting annoyed now because I was saying ‘what’s that got to do with my shoulder?’,” says Linda”

To her alarm, she was told the appointment was the next day and she arrived to be faced with a bronchoscopy and a barrage of questions about her history of chest ailments, asthma in the family, the possibility of asbestos exposure and many more.

Over the years, I had said to doctors that I’d been in the Stardust and would that have anything to do with it but they never thought it was relevant and I stopped asking because I felt stupid bringing it up.

This time, she ended up in the surgery of respiratory expert Richard Costelloe, who went through her history again and this time, as soon as she mentioned the Stardust fire, he was immediately on the alert.

“He said to me ‘of course that’s relevant’,” she recalls. “He couldn’t believe I was in my 50s and this was the first time I’d even been x-rayed.”

Linda was shocked by her test results and in particular to hear that the top lobe of her right lung was a mess of damaged tissue, dead matter, and infection that would have to be removed if it didn’t respond to treatment.

She was put on medication for a year to try and clear it but the winter of 2016 knocked her flat and in May 2017, she underwent a seven-hour lobectomy.

To the disappointment of all, not least herself, it has not had as good an effect as was hoped and Linda was back in hospital late last year, this time stuck for 10 days on an IV.

“I still get pain from the surgery but it’s the tiredness that really bothers me. I get tired very quickly. And if it’s cold or damp out, there are days I don’t cross the front door because I know it’ll knock me back.”

Linda recently spent a month in Malaysia with her husband’s family and she literally breathes easier in the warm climate so, in future, she says they’ll have to think about where they’re going to live.

But the couple’s two sons are in Ireland, with two adored grandchildren and a third on the way and Linda loves being a hands-on grandmother.

“A bunch of us who were all friends and all went to the Stardust met up last year at the funeral of one of the fellas who was injured,” she says. “He died of cancer.

“I was telling them what was going on with me and one of them said, we’re probably all ticking timebombs. We breathed the smoke and the toxic fumes and then we picked ourselves up and went home.

“Officially, there were 214 injured, but there were hundreds of us that never went near a hospital. I’d say to anyone who was in the fire and was never checked out to go and get themselves checked. We thought, we’re alive so we’re grand, and we just moved on, but now it’s caught up with me.”

Relatives of the Stardust victims are currently awaiting a decision from the attorney general on their application for fresh inquests into their deaths.

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