“It kept those who hadn’t got a ticket out, and it kept innocent civilians inside, out of reach, some never to be seen alive again. While nobody was jailed for the Stardust deaths, the survivors and families received a life sentence of pain, grief and injustice“
February 14th, 2020, marks the 39th anniversary of the infamous fire in Dublin’s Stardust nightclub. Arguably the worst fire in the history of the state, the lack of transparency, enquiry and justice has stirred up outrage and upset among survivors, the public and the families and friends of victims. 48 young people primarily hailing from Artane, Kilmore and Coolock, were killed. 214 people were seriously injured, with a tribunal of inquiry under Justice Ronan Keane later in the year marking the cause as “probably arson”.
The fire started in a storeroom on the first floor of the building, now assumed to have been derived from an electrical fault. The storeroom’s inappropriate location was unaccounted for in planning permission and the building’s inaccurate floor plan. It contained dangerously flammable materials including 45 drums of cooking oil storing five gallons each, sodium chlorate toilet cleaner and an abundance of paper and plastic.
At 1.30am, the winners of a dancing contest on the main stage noticed a small fire. By 1.45am, the ceiling melted and collapsed into a toxic molten mess, dripping on top of club goers and the highly flammable materials in the building’s decor. PVC coated seating with polyurethane stuffing (which can raise room temps to 815 degrees celsius in less than a minute) aided a flash-over fire, sweeping smoke throughout the premises. The lights failed, creating panic and mass trampling as patrons desperately began looking for escape. Many mistook the men’s toilets for the main entrance doors. The windows in the bathroom had metal plates fixed on the inside, accompanying the iron bars fixed on the outside. Firemen attempted to pull off the bars using a tow chain attached to a fire engine, sledgehammers and axes, but the time consuming effort was unsuccessful despite safety being inches away.
Concluding the cause as “probably arson”, despite zero evidence, the owners were legally exonerated from responsibility. The Butterly family sued Dublin Corporation and were compensated with £580,000, while Christine Keegan, who lost her daughters Mary and Martina in the fire, received £7,500 for each young woman. After a twenty-five year silence, Eamon Butterly finally offered a swift apology to the victims’ families in 2006. In 2009, the Dail voted to acknowledge in public record that there was no evidence the fire was started maliciously and therefore no attendee at the nightclub that evening can be deemed responsible.
The fire itself aside, safety standards were recklessly below par. Basic rules like the provision of fire extinguishers and unblocked fire exists could have prevented many deaths and injuries. Those running the event had the responsibility of delivering an adequate service to paying customers, many of whom were teenagers. The families had to live with a verdict of arson based solely off hypothesis, a verdict which attempts to tarnish the reputations of those in attendance while rendering their relatives unable to sue the club owners and operators for alleged negligence.
None of this should have happened. There are more shocking details of the case I fail to mention in depth; illegal alcohol distribution to minors, the proposal to reopen a new pub on the site, eye-witness accounts, unidentified bodies buried in a collective grave and victims’ personal profiles that are deeply upsetting to read knowing their hopes and dreams were seized. 48 young people went out for a Valentine’s Eve disco and never returned. There may never have been a fire if the owners implemented adequate safety regulations in the building.
People barely entering adulthood may still have had the chance to live, were there fit-for-purpose fire escapes, evacuation procedures and extinguishers. Instead, there were chains, padlocks, skips, and vans barricading or locking emergency fire exits, for the supposed purpose of discouraging attendees to sneak their friends in discreetly. It kept those who hadn’t got a ticket out, and it kept innocent civilians inside, out of reach, some never to be seen alive again. While nobody was jailed for the Stardust deaths, the survivors and families received a life sentence of pain, grief and injustice.
Immense public support has protruded over the years, while the Stardust Victims Committee fought in the courts for compensation and adequate recognition. The 2018 Truth postcard campaign gained 40000 signatures demanding veracity and truth, as new evidence was uncovered through Freedom of Information requests and previously unheard witness testimony . Earlier this month, the Attorney General Seamus Woulfe drew on comparisons with the Hillsborough soccer disaster when he decided to open a new inquest last September. A fresh hearing is set to take place over the coming months. A candlelight vigil was held yesterday evening at the site of the wreck, attended by singer Christy Moore, whose song They Never Came Home was banned for “defamation”. A new plaque was erected in commemoration, replacing the previous plaque that contained three misspelled names.
The procedures surrounding the tragedy have raised questions about morality, care, class and justice. Money and success over safety and community. The importance of music, protest and community in terrible times, and an urgent need for responsibility and responsible practise. We can never regain the lives that were lost, but hopefully we can learn from it. 3 teenagers died last year in Cookstown, trampled on in the queue for a disco. Overpopulating festival grounds in Ireland has shown me brief scares of stampedes that luckily never escalated further. What is the point of public safe spaces if they aren’t safe? It is both relieving and heartbreaking to say that almost 40 years on from the Stardust fire, communities have finally gotten a step closer to answers, accountability and justice.