I WILL NEVER forget the horrendous stench of smoke. It hung horribly in the air. I was on my way home from the city centre in a taxi. The flashing blue lights of emergency vehicles were reflected in the water that drenched the road and pavements, but I had no idea of the enormity of the disaster that had taken place.
When I woke the next morning I discovered that of the 850 people who were at the Stardust disco in the early hours of St Valentine’s Day in 1981, 214 were very badly injured and 48 had lost their lives.
In a black and white photograph in one of the newspapers I remember seeing the distraught face of a school pal, Martin Dowling, captured as he desperately tried to help people along with the fire brigade and Gardai.
No one was prepared for the scale of the disaster.
The tribunal found the owner of the Stardust had acted “with a reckless disregard for the safety of the people on the premises”.
The gutted shell of the Stardust nightclub after the Valentine’s Night fire in 1981 in which 48 people died. Image: PA Archive.
However, despite clear breaches of fire safety regulations, no one has ever faced charges. Indeed, the relatives are still seeking the full truth of who was ultimately responsible and pushing for another tribunal.
Panic on people’s faces
It is true that Ireland was a very different place back then. But while there is little doubt things have improved, recent events have shown the fundamental lessons have still not been learnt.
Looking at the panic on people’s faces in the images captured by mobile phone during the pandemonium outside Copper Face Jack’s at the end of January I was reminded of the faces I had seen in the back and white newspaper photographs taken that night outside the Stardust.
The resulting crush outside Copper Face Jacks saw one young woman badly hurt, but it could have ended with far more dire consequences.
In the aftermath, the gardai announced they are to carry out a review of queuing arrangements outside nightclubs. But why should an overstretched, under-resourced police force be responsible for ensuring nightclub owners and event organisers are providing safe environments for their patrons to enjoy themselves?
Playing catch-up in guarding against disaster
Even though the Stardust fire left a very deep and unforgettable scar, it seems that we are still playing catch-up when it comes to regulating and guarding against such disasters.
When Swedish House Mafia played a chaotic concert in the Phoenix Park to 45,000 people, one man died of a drugs overdose and nine other concertgoers were stabbed. The mayhem sparked demands for answers from gardai and concert promoters MCD. Others blamed the audience, the music, the drink and the drugs, but it is the organisers that must hold ultimate responsibility.
In 2010 the Irish Nightclub Industry Association (INIA) attempted to be proactive in raising standards in nightclubs across Ireland with the launch of ‘NightSafe’. I was involved at the time with the effort to publicise the launch of this best-practice initiative and awards scheme for the nightclub sector.
The aim was to help operators achieve regulatory compliance and to introduce additional requirements for responsible trading. The surrounding publicity also targeted highlighting best practice in key operational areas.
The follow-through never happened
However, while the launch of these awards received an initial PR bump, the economic downturn meant that the much-needed follow through never happened as the project ultimately did not have the required financial support.
Ensuring the safety of customers should not just be a matter of legal obligation but of social responsibility. It should not be a matter influenced by budgetary constraints and it is important to remember the biggest incidents have happened at venues and events that are highly profitable.
Our enthusiasm for a good night out can no longer be taken advantage of by those looking to profit without making the necessary investment and planning to ensure our safety.
The drinks industry, publicans, nightclub owners and concert promoters have an obligation. Because 33 years after the Stardust fire it is deeply saddening to still see people almost dying just because they wanted to party and have a good time.
Paul Allen is Managing Director of Paul Allen and Associates PR, www.prireland.com.