Stardust fire - A tragedy that could strike again

AFTER 25 long, heartbreaking years since the devastation of the terrible Stardust inferno, the families of the 48 people who perished in the blaze still do not know what caused it.

And, the reality is that what happened on that ill-fated St Valentine’s Night in 1981 could be revisited on other families, because were the atrocity to be repeated, our fire services simply could not cope.

That is the plain, unmitigated truth which successive governments have chosen to ignore, despite warnings from professionals in the service and advice from an expert review body appointed by the present Government two years ago.

The tribunal into the terrible tragedy found: “The lack of proper training (within the emergency services) from senior management down to the firemen, contributed significantly to the shortcomings in the rescue operation at the Stardust.”

It also laid “special responsibility” on Stardust owner Eamonn Butterly, because of locked emergency doors, but whose claim for £500,000 damages has long ago been settled.

The most senior fire officers in the country still believe that the Government’s policy to develop the fire services fails to address fundamental weaknesses.

In the middle of last year, the Chief Fire Officers’ Association criticised the decision by Environment Minister Dick Roche to rule out the establishment of a National Fire and Civil Protection Authority.

The creation of such a body, which would have responsibility for ensuring the coordinated development of fire, civil protection and emergency services, was the main recommendation contained in a report dating back four years.

The Garda Commissioner and the Forensic Science Laboratory have dismissed a recent report on the Stardust fire, claiming it offered no new evidence.

That report was presented 12 months ago on behalf of survivors’ and victims’ families, bringing forward what it maintained was new evidence.

It challenged the 1982 tribunal, which found that arson was the probable cause of the fire.

According to the legal adviser to the Stardust Legal Challenge Committee, solicitor Gregory O’Neill, they hope to be in a position to forward a fresh dossier to the Department of Justice within weeks.

The Department of Justice has promised it will “carefully examine” new evidence, although there is already calls for a new inquiry into the circumstances of that event.

A walkout by relatives from a special screening of the RTÉ drama, Stardust, reflects the view that they do not now need a dramatisation of the fire, but the reasons why 48 people lost their lives in that horrific tragedy.

In the intervening 25 years since it happened, it is unconscionable that the fire service is still inadequate to deal with another tragedy on a similar scale because of government intransigence.

From a broader and very current perspective, it is highly questionable, given the state of our fire and emergency services, that the country could deal adequately with a terrorist attack, a nuclear disaster, a biological attack or a flu pandemic.

All worst-case scenarios, but it is for such horrendous possibilities that the system should be prepared.

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