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Image of the 48 victims who died in the fire in the Stardust nightclub in 1981.

Stardust survivor says husband died in the blaze hours after celebrating daughter's first birthday

Christina Smyth said she last saw her husband sitting at their table minding the coats while she on the dancefloor

A WOMAN WHOSE husband died in the Stardust blaze hours after they celebrated their daughter’s first birthday has told how looking back into the building was like “looking into a furnace”.

Christina Smyth said she last saw her husband, Jimmy Buckley, as he was sitting at their table minding the coats and bags while she was on the dancefloor.

She told the inquest at Dublin District Coroner’s Court today that after escaping the building through a fire exit, she went back to try and find her husband but: “It was just like looking into a furnace. The doors were open; it was just completely red”.

Describing the moment she last saw her 23-year-old husband, Smyth said: “I left him sitting at the table… I remember looking up and he wasn’t in the seat,” she told Sean Guerin SC, representing a number of families, including Ms Smyth herself.

The inquest heard Christina and Jimmy, who met when they were teenagers, had attended the Stardust on the night to watch Jimmy’s brother Errol who was dancing in a disco competition.

The date of the disco also marked their daughter, Julieann’s first birthday, Smyth told Coroner Dr Myra Cullinane.

In her original statement, which was read into the record today, Smyth said she had been on the dancefloor with her brother-in-law Albert when the fire was noticed.

She said Albert grabbed her hand and brought her over to exit number five. She said the doors were closed and she could hear people shouting that they couldn’t open them.

Smyth told Coroner Dr Myra Cullinane that her husband had been out on the dancefloor with his brother Errol and Albert earlier, celebrating Errol’s win in the dance competition before he came back to the area they were sitting in.

She said Albert and Errol came over and asked them to come back out on the dancefloor. “So I went down to dance”, she said before confirming that was the last time she saw Jimmy.

Smyth said when the fire was first noticed, she saw grey and black clouds “rolling across the ceiling” and they were “really thick” like “storm clouds”.

Smyth said Albert grabbed her hand and brought her towards exit five.

“Albert effectively pulled you towards the door straight away and that was obviously the right thing to do to get out, no question about that,” Guerin said.

She said people were moving towards the door and they were “fairly squashed” before the doors opened.

She agreed with Guerin that she asked Albert, as they were going out, to go back in and look for Jimmy.

She agreed however there was no possibility of going back in at that stage, because things went from dancing and enjoying the evening to completely incompatible with remaining inside extremely quickly.

The inquest also heard evidence today from Lorraine McDonnell who told how her 16-year-old sister came to alert her to the fire and warn her to get out before the teenager lost her own life in the blaze.

McDonnell told the jury that her sister Teresa (16) had been “having a ball on the night” and had come over to chat once or twice during the evening.

Lorraine, who was 19 at the time, was chatting to friends and “wasn’t paying any attention” to what was going on in the hall until Teresa came over and shouted: “Get out, there’s a fire”.

She said her sister headed back towards the main door, exit two, and after she got out through exit five, she went to the front of the building “straight away” to try and find her sister.

The inquest has previously heard evidence from Brian Killeen who said Teresa had been with him as he made his way to exit two before she decided to turn back to tell her sister Lorraine to get out.

He told the inquest this was the last time he saw the teenager.

In her original garda statement, which was read into the record today, McDonnell said she turned around and saw the fire and her friend told her not to panic.

There was black smoke all around, she said, and she eventually escaped through exit five.

She told Gemma McLoughlin Burke, a member of the coroner’s legal team, that she saw the fire out of “the corner of my eye” after her sister first alerted her to it.

She said as she made her way to the exit, it was “coal black” and she couldn’t see where she was going but said she did not encounter any delays getting from her table to exit five.

McDonnell told Katie Stevens BL, for a number of families, including the family of siblings Marcella, George and Willie McDermott who all perished in the blaze, that she had been in George and Willie’s company on the night from shortly after 11pm until about 1.15am.

Asked if she saw them after that time, McDonnell said she had seen Willie “starting to get up to leave” after her sister had told her about the fire.

She said very quickly after this, the lights went out and there was thick black smoke everywhere.

McDonnell told Brenda Campbell KC, representing a number of families of the deceased including the witness’s own family, that she could not remember what direction her sister came from when she approached her to warn about the fire but said she did see Teresa running back towards exit two.

The witness agreed with Campbell that it was possible her sister might have come from exit two to tell her about the fire, and then tried to get back to that same exit, exit two.

She confirmed to Campbell that she had not thought anything of seeing two young men flicking a lighter in the club earlier that evening.

Asked why she had mentioned it in her statement, McDonnell said gardaí had asked her specifically if she had seen anyone with lighters in the general area.

The witness also confirmed that in the aftermath of the fire there were lots of “rumours going around”.

The inquest also heard evidence today from Thomas Larkin, who told how, after he collapsed and someone pulled him to safety outside, he heard a girl screaming inside the ballroom and went back to pull her out.

Larkin, who was 26 years old at the time of the fire, said this girl was Antoinette Keegan.

Keegan’s two siblings, Mary (19) and Martina (16) both perished in the fire which claimed the lives of 48 young people when it broke out on 13 February, 1981.

Larkin told how he spotted the woman’s white silk blouse and grabbed her and pulled her out.

He said the woman had a hold of something and the only way he could get her out was to “kick her hand” away because whatever she was holding onto, “she was holding on tight” and “wasn’t letting go”.

The inquest has previously heard evidence from Antoinette Keegan, who told how she had been holding her sister’s hand when Mr Larkin pulled her out. She said she had borrowed the white blouse she was wearing on the night from her sister Martina.

Des Fahy KC, representing a number of families including the Keegan family, said the court could now “connect those two pieces of evidence”.

He told Larkin that although he didn’t know what Keegan was holding onto at the time, it is now clear that she was holding her sister Martina’s hand.

The inquest heard Larkin lost two of his friends, Brian Hobbs (21) and Caroline Carey (17) in the fire.

In his original garda statement, which was read into the record in court today, Larkin said when he initially saw the fire, he thought it was small but the next thing he remembered it was “out of control”.

He said he and a friend headed for exit five where they found a group of about 20 people trying to push the door open.

He said he fell in the darkness and was “choking” with the fumes and the smoke.

Larkin told Burke, that when he fell on the floor he could see the emergency exit lights. He said before he could get to it, a hand “came in from outside” and grabbed him by the shoulders and took out the door.

He said there were a lot of people ahead of him as he was trying to make his way to the exit and he could hear people trying to kick the doors open.

Mr Larkin said when he got outside the atmosphere was one of “panic”.

“People didn’t know what to do or who to talk to,” he said.

Larkin told Ms Brenda Campbell KC, representing a number of families including the family of Caroline Carey, that he could not remember when he had last seen Caroline and her boyfriend on the night but confirmed they were together.

The witness told Michael O’Higgins SC, representing a number of families including the family of Brian Hobbs, that Hobbs had been sitting with his group earlier in the night but he did not see him at any other time as the night progressed.

Ann Mahony, who was 18 at the time of the fire, told the court that when the lights went out and the room filled with smoke, she “ just ran with the crowd”.

She said she was then knocked down and trampled on and added: “someone actually dragged me out because I don’t know how I got out. I woke up outside on the street”.

Jennifer Smith told the inquest that she could smell something burning before the fire was noticed.

She said she mentioned the smell to her friend and a waitress who was collecting plates on the night also said she could smell something burning. Ms Smith said it was “hard to put a time on” when this was. She said the smell was “unusual” and was not like a match or a cigarette burning.

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