Pic: Families who lost loved ones in the Stardust fire in February 1981 gathered at the Garden of Rememberance before an inquest into the deaths that began this week. (Collins)
by Ryan Dunne
A 12-year-old girl having to be sedated after seeing her sister’s coffin and a mother’s sense of fear “like a physical sickness” are just some of the effects felt by the families who lost loved ones in the Stardust nightclub blaze, the Coroner’s Court has heard.
The third day of the inquest took place today in the Pillar Room of the Rotunda Hospital, with the continuation of pen portraits detailing the lives of the 48 people who died when a fire broke out in the Stardust Ballroom in Artane in the early hours of February 14, 1981.
Susan Behan gave an emotional account of her brother Johnny Colgan, who was only 21 when his life was claimed by the blaze. Ms Behan said Johnny was their father’s right hand, their mother’s pride and joy, and her sister Patricia’s hero, for whom he did everything.
“Johnny was so handsome and a truly special person. Johnny’s essence was pure, he was a natural charmer. People were drawn to him like a magnet,” she said, adding that he was always upbeat and positive.
She said her brother was full of life, loved playing football, having a pint with the lads, and he was always up for the craic. She said that when he walked into a room, he instantly filled the room with love.
Ms Behan said that her father, who is now deceased as is her mother, last saw Johnny on the Friday, which was payday, when Johnny was laughing and rubbing his hands together with his pay packet in hand, contemplating the Friday night out with the lads. She said her mother’s last memory was of them having their tea together on that Friday evening.
“It was just an ordinary Friday. Little did we know the horror that awaited us,” she said.
“I was 8 and half months pregnant when the Stardust fire took Johnny. The last time I saw Johnny was Thursday, the day before the fire. He patted my bump and said: “I am going to be an uncle soon.” That was the last time I saw him; he went to the Stardust and never came home,” recalled Ms Behan.
She said that the family were told that on the night of the Stardust fire, Johnny helped his best friend Kenny to safety. Kenny said Johnny got out, but he went back in because he could hear girls crying in the toilets.
“I am not sure if this account of the girls is true, but it sounds exactly like something he would do,” she said, going on to say that the effect of losing her brother in the fire continues to this day.
She said the loss of her brother had left her feeling vulnerable and afraid of letting her children go out as they grew up.
“Most parents have this fear but mine was like a physical sickness in my stomach. It was a dread, and time has not assuaged my anguish or my fear,” she said, adding that her sense of loss has never diminished.
“There are 48 victims who cannot speak, with 200 young people injured and maimed and 96 parents who want answers, hundreds of brothers and sisters who need closure, thousands of extended family and friends who have been worn down, and millions of Irish people who deserve nothing less than the best efforts in seeking an explanation for the Stardust tragedy,” Ms Behan said.
The sister of Liam Dunne, who was 18 when he died, also spoke at today’s proceedings. Siobhan Kearney described her brother Liam as “a truly loved son and brother” who had many friends.
“On Saturday morning after the fire, I found Liam in the Mater hospital. Mum and dad were searching the other hospitals. A lot of my friends were there that night, so it was horrible walking through the hospital, searching,” said Ms Kearney.
She said she found her brother with his face all swollen and bandages on his hands and arms. He was spitting up stuff, she said.
“I said: ‘I’m here Liam, it’s Siobhan.’ He said: ‘I was crawling on the floor and my hands were melting.’ I had to leave as it was terrible,” she said,
That evening, Liam was taken for an operation because the blood flow in his hands was bad. He was moved to the ICU that night and was given 24 hours to live.
“For the next month, we were in hospital every day,” she said. “I was on my way up on March 11. Liam died at 11.50 that morning. Liam was the last to die on March 11, 1981. I died also. I was 16 and the pain of that sadness has never left me,” said Ms Kearney.
She said that those weeks in hospital were the most terrible and saddest time in their family. She said that Liam was truly a strong young man to fight so hard for his life – but it was not to be.
“That month ripped our family apart. To watch my lovely mum cry and just stare. No talking, just tears. Our family tried to support each other but like most, trying to understand the grief and pain and sadness left us silent,” she said.
She said that living with such a young death at a young age causes a pain you carry with you through life every day.
“I hope from all of this Liam can finally rest in peace and his surviving family can live more peacefully too,” Ms Kearney concluded.
The last of today’s pen portraits was given by Alison Keane, sister of Jacqueline Croker, who was 19 when she died. Ms Keane, who was 12 when she lost her sister, said that their father idolised Jacqueline.
“Dad and Jackie used to spend lots of time together because they would work together and even go drinking together,” she said.
Ms Keane said her father had to get up early for work, so the family heard the World News at 5am which reported that there had been a fire at the Stardust.
“The night of the Stardust, my mam and dad knew that she had worn her white coat to go out, but they did not know what she was wearing underneath her coat. I was woken up at seven o`clock by Mr McGregor asking me what other clothes Jackie had been wearing to try and identify her at the morgue. I remember when he woke me up, he told me that there was a fire, but I felt disoriented in shock, in horror, and in disbelief,” said Ms Keane.
She said that she remembers there was news footage taken of her in the neighbours’ garden playing hopscotch at the time, not realising the severity of what was happening around her because of her age.
“It’s not as simple as just one person being lost to our family. Everyone knew everyone in our community and each loss was felt by the community as well as the families,” said Ms Keane.
She said that after the Stardust fire, it was common to see someone either with visible scarring from a burn sustained that night at the Stardust or someone who had lost someone in the fire.
“Nobody ever spoke about it with each other in the community because you would have no idea how the other person would react to something so emotional and affecting,” she said. “It felt like everybody was left on their own and so had to deal with the grief by putting it under the rug and just forcing yourself to carry on with life.”
She said that she had to be taken out of the church and brought home to be sedated after seeing four coffins laid out.
“I didn’t get to go to the funeral because of my horrendous state of upset at the sight of those coffins,” she said.
The inquest continues tomorrow, when further pen portraits of the deceased will be read out by family members.