- 20 Feb 81
Originally published on February 20th, 1981: In the immediate aftermath of the Stardust tragedy, Bill Graham examined the issues, in a special report in Hot Press. Little would we have imagined that, forty years later, the families of the victims of that appalling tragedy would still be looking for justice – and the truth about what happened on that desperately grim Valentine's night...
LAST SATURDAY morning between 1:45 and 2:00, forty-eight disco-goers were killed in a fire at The Stardust Club in Artane, in Dublin. It was the most fatal fire in an Irish public place within living memory; it was also the greatest catastrophe in the entertainment industry in these islands.
The Stardust was presenting its normal Friday night disco with the added attraction of a special K-Tel disco dance contest. Approximately 800 attended in the hall that had been specially partitioned off to cut down its normal capacity of 1500.
The night was drawing to a close when the fire broke out at about 1:45am, apparently in the partitioned area, and engulfed the hall so quickly that it was beyond control when the Dublin Fire Brigade arrived ten minutes later.
In the panic, the flames, and not least the killing poisonous fumes, the forty-eight died and over one hundred and thirty were taken to hospital for treatment to burns and wounds of varying degrees of seriousness. Some were still critical at the time of going to press.
With few exceptions, the victims came from the immediate neighbourhood, which is also part of the constituency of the Taoiseach, Charles Haughey. On Sunday he announced that a fully sworn tribunal under a High Court judge would examine the controversial circumstances of the fire. Few believe The Stardust will escape severe criticism, both for its design and fire precautions.
All available evidence indicates that The Stardust was a fire-trap, despite the fact that it had been passed by Dublin Corporation — and presumably insurance inspectors — as safe and therefore as fit for an entertainment license. Controversy about how the fire happened and its terrible consequence essentially centres on two matters — the combustibility of plastic-based materials in the seats and the ceiling; and the availability, or other wise, of emergency exits.
Assistant Manager Walsh asserted to The Sunday Independent that the club’s management were assured that the recently-installed ceiling tiles were fireproof – but he is contradicted by all eye-witness reports, which agree that the fire became uncontrollable once it reached the roof. The survivors declarations that molten material began to rain upon them indicate that there must have been plastic-based substances in the false celling.
Furthermore the toxic, suffocating fumes certainly derived from the foam in the seating, which expert evidence also suggests had the capacity to raise the temperature ferociously. The Stardust management don't seem to have been breaking any laws; apparently such materials are permissible according to Irish fire regulations, though one wonders at the governmental negligence which allowed such to be the case. Already there are allegations that Department of the Environment recommendations in this respect were ignored.
Then there is the matter of emergency exits. Besides the official entrance, there are five other doors out of The Stardust. Three of these — on the left as seen from the stage — lead into the other areas of the building but because they were on the side where the fire began, they seem to soon have been beyond the reach of would-be escapers. The real controversy concerns the other two exits to the outside.
Initially, panic appears to have driven the audience towards the main entrance and the stage. The only other available exit in that area was down a corridor parallel to the main entrance and lobby and adjoining the toilets, where many of the victims died. The other exit was to the right of the stage and the issue is whether either or both of these were either padlocked or chained?
Socialist Labour deputy for the area Dr Noel Browne T.D. has gathered statements from survivors declaring that they were. He says the doors had to be kicked down and even in one case speaks of a door having to be “bashed down” by a car from the outside. Furthermore all windows were barred. If the doors were locked, it is possible they could only be opened from the outside. Hot Press further understands that any chains would have been so tightly bound that a shoulder-charge by one or more heavies at the moment of crisis could only have been successful if the hinges were broken off the steel doors. Moreover, there was no connecting passage between the lobby and the other corridor. Thus, there was no access for a bouncer to this corridor unless he braved the fumes and the cauldron.
Also members of the Hot Press staff at previous Stardust presentations have noticed that the exits were indeed padlocked. Finally a source who was involved in promotion at The Stardust has admitted to Hot Press that it was a matter of policy to keep those doors padlocked on the part of The Stardust management. It appears incontrovertible that the security emphasis was to prevent vandals and others entering rather than to allow speedy escape in case of fire. Whatever the exact accuracy of the claims and counter-claims, the fire-escapes were catastrophically proven inadequate.
This leads on to the issues of fire drill and the deployment of security staff. For instance, who had the keys to the doors? The inquiry must investigate whether any members of the security staff were charged to monitor the two primary fire exits and whether they had individual keys. Or did — as happens so often in such establishments — only one person have the key ring, thus making any intervention impossible? Also, what was the fire drill? Were any security staff delegated to cover the far right of the stage and if so, why do all reports only mention the disc jockey Colm O'Brien as trying to instil calm?
Hot Press also understands that The Stardust possessed a wall-hung inter-phone system for communication through the hall. In none of the reports is there any mention of its use. Any inquiry must discover whether it still existed, whether or not it was integrated into any fire drill or if the sheer speed of the fire's onset prevented the execution of any fire plan?
The electrical system must also be investigated. The Stardust possessed an electrical network that involved six separate power points. Stage lights, house lights and the main amplification system were powered separately. Was their simultaneous failure due to the ravages of the fire, which began adjacent to the control room — for instance the fuse box could have been blown — or were there other inadequacies in the circuitry? Had It been serviced recently or overhauled since the building was constructed?
On the non-technical front, The Stardust management will also face accusations concerning illegal under-age attendance at a disco where alcohol was served. Among the casualties both dead and injured were many under the legal age of eighteen. Did alcohol assist In engendering the panic?
Yet even if the Stardust management is indicted, they were no more than following common shoddy practice in innumerable discos, dance-halls and marquees throughout Ireland. Inevitably, now, stricter fire and safety regulations will be enforced at all places of entertainment throughout Dublin and the country.
What will be their consequences for a business that values punts above perfectionism?
The implications of the holocaust cannot be foreseen but stringent codes could simultaneously increase the cost and limit the scope of entertainment as the investment of club-owners and other entrepreneurs flows up-market to attract the employed, prosperous mid-20's of the singles society. The necessary new safe, and above, all un-costly, types of venue and entertainment may not be established to cater for teenagers and early twenties. There may in the future be places the survivors of The Stardust holocaust can go to dance without nervously looking over their shoulders to the fire exit - but will they be able to regularly afford the cost?
The tribunal must consider the terms of both safety and entertainment. And if its legal limitations prevent it investigating the full terms of the Irish entertainment industry, that duty falls on society and the media. We hear much from politicians and commentators of all persuasions about youth and employment. After the Stardust, they must think of youth and leisure.
This article was initially published in Hot Press Volume 5 Number 3, on 20th February 1981. The late Bill Graham, one of the editorial team involved in the launch of Hot Press, died in 1996.