Questions still remain about the cause of the Stardust fire in 1981 in which 48 people lost their lives. Caroline O’Doherty says the families of those who died are still seeking answers
LIKE so many of the witness accounts related to the tribunal of inquiry into the 1981 Stardust fire, the testimony of lounge girl Valerie Rooney did not get individual attention in the final report.
But since examining the mountain of transcripts and investigation files with fresh eyes, relatives of the victims haven’t been able to forget her words.
She told the tribunal: “There was one fellow up the back with his head on his arms. He appeared to be sleeping, and about two or three more in the F area asleep on the chairs.”
Others saw these “sleeping” boys too, including a fireman who would later put their number at five — the same number of bodies found in this area — and the tribunal report itself said there could have been six.
It was a small observation, considered inconsequential except to paint a picture of what the young clubbers were doing before their Valentine’s disco ended with the loss of 48 lives and injuries to 218 others.
But were the boys really asleep? It was late and undoubtedly some were running out of steam, but the venue was buzzing, a dance competition was on and post mortems found only 28 of the dead had drunk alcohol, none to great excess.
According to the report: “Levels of alcohol were not such as to have physically incapacitated the victims and thereby hindered their escape.”
Crucially, these sleeping boys in the north alcove did not respond when the alarm was raised. That leads the relatives to believe they were already unconscious, or maybe even dead, from fumes emanating from overhead, some 20m from the west alcove where the first flames were seen inside.
The significance of that theory to the relatives is immense as it adds further weight to their long-held beliefs about the cause and source of the fire that has haunted their North Dublin community for 34 years.
Now more than ever they want a fresh inquiry to look again at all the evidence, both that assembled at the time and since, and to reveal once and for all what really happened on that terrible night.
The original tribunal was established with impressive speed, having its first public sitting just 16 days after the fire. Charles Haughey was taoiseach at the time; this was his constituency and he was keen to act decisively. He appointed High Court judge Ronan Keane, the husband of his then lover, Terry Keane, as chairman.
More than 1,600 statements taken by gardaí were made available to the tribunal and 363 witnesses gave direct evidence. It seemed a thorough examination. But the conclusions it reached in the report published the following year shocked the survivors and bereaved.
Despite stating three times that there was “no evidence” that the fire was started deliberately, Justice Keane then said: “The tribunal has come to the conclusion that the more probable explanation of the fire is that it was caused deliberately.” He said it probably started in the west alcove after seats were slashed and set alight.
It is worth repeating that Justice Keane had already stated three times in the preceding paragraphs that there was “no evidence” to support the theory that the fire was started deliberately, yet in his final sentence on the subject, he described it as a “reckless criminal enterprise”.
The finding enabled the owners of the Stardust, whom the tribunal heard had committed multiple breaches of the planning and fire safety regulations, to claim £600,000 in compensation. No survivor got more than £200,000 and most of all those compensated received under £15,000.
The hurt felt by the survivors and bereaved went way beyond financial, however, and over the years, the belief that injustice had been added to their grief intensified.
Approaching the 25th anniversary in 2006, the relatives regrouped and began re-examining the tribunal files, highlighting flaws in the inquiry.
The floor plans drawn for the inquiry wrongly showed a storeroom positioned “over basement” giving the impression it was at ground level. There was no basement, the storeroom was overhead, it was full of combustible materials such as cooking oil and detergents, and it opened to the roof space. If a fire started there, the flames would quickly spread upwards and across the venue through the roof space.
The electrics came under some scrutiny, but not thoroughly enough to bring to light the perilous extent to which the venue’s system was overloaded.
The evidence of witnesses outside who spotted smoke and flames on the roof at least ten minutes before flames were seen inside, was cast aside because of doubts over the accuracy of their times although times reported by those inside, who were absorbed in revelry, were not doubted.
The importance of at least one log of phone calls to the emergency services that backed up external witnesses’ reports was overlooked.
The families pushed for a fresh inquiry and in 2008 were granted an independent review. Senior counsel John Gallagher was made chairman but stepped down after it emerged he represented gardaí at the 1981 tribunal.
His replacement, Paul Coffey SC, reported to the Government in December 2008 that the tribunal was wrong to make a finding of probable arson and that the public record should be corrected.
Initially pleased with his findings, the families took a closer look and were once again dismayed. The review completed in December 2008 said “a new inquiry is necessary if it is the only way of placing on the public record a finding that is based on evidence”.
But the version made public the next month omitted this statement and concluded that the cause of the fire could not be established.
The families say the review overstepped its remit, as it was not supposed to make findings about the fire’s cause, and there has not been a clear explanation for the amended second version, the ministerial line being changes were made for the purposes of clarification.
The other ministerial line, repeated by three justice ministers to date, is that without new evidence, there is no justification for a new inquiry.
The families say their evidence is a combination of the new and the newly appreciated.
They say the misleading floor plans, the position and structure of the storeroom, the state of the electrics and the evidence of the external witnesses all point to an electrical fire, fuelled by flammable materials, uncontained by a shabbily built store room and sent racing through the roof space, spreading deadly fumes to the apparently sleeping young men.
It was already too late to save them but, the families say, even after 34 years it’s not too late to salvage justice.
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