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The 48 victims of the Stardust fire. Sasko Lazarov/

Hard to conceive 'scale and enormity' of losing three family members at Stardust, inquest told

Bodies were identified by dental record and jewelry, the inquest heard.

IT IS HARD to conceive “the scale and enormity” of the effects of losing three family members in the Stardust fire, an inquest jury has heard. 

Siblings Marcella (16), George (18) and William (22) McDermott all lost their lives in the blaze which claimed the lives of 48 young people when it broke out in the early hours of 14 February, 1981 at the Artane nightclub. 

As a review of their identification and postmortem evidence took place today, Michael O’Higgins SC, representing the McDermott family including their 87-year-old mother Bridget McDermott, said it was hard to conceive the scale and enormity of such an event and the effect it must have had on the family. 

“Undoubtedly that cannot be appreciated or adequately measured,” he said.  

“I certainly can’t appreciate the effects of this,” forensic pathologist Dr Richard Shepherd agreed. 

Shepherd and colleagues Doctor Nat Carey and Doctor Benjamin Swift are providing reviews of the evidence into the causes of death of the 48 victims. 

O’Higgins said Ms McDermott has, over the years, been very vigilant in attempting to ensure that there was a fresh inquiry on the events of the fire. 

He said her father was a fireman based in Tara Street, one of the stations which received the call on the night of the fire, but was not on shift on the night.

“It’s hard to know whether that was a blessing or a matter of regret in his case,” he said.  

He also told how Marcella’s coffin was carried by friends dressed in two-tone Ska clothing in honour of her favourite band The Specials, whose concert at the venue she had attended a fortnight previously. 

Counsel said the family had thought it “fitting” that her friends dress in the traditional two tone mode associated with Ska, as a tribute to Marcella.

The inquest heard Marcella was identified through dental records.

Her cause of death was confirmed as rapid incapacitation due to inhalation of fire fumes and heat, and the same cause of death was recorded for her brother George. 

The jury heard George was identified by the clothes he was wearing on the night, which he had bought new especially for the occasion. 

He was last seen at the time the fire became visible dancing on the floor at the front of the stage with his friends.  

William McDermott was last seen at around 12am seated with friends in the north alcove, Dr Shepherd said.

He was taken from the Stardust but was pronounced dead at the Mater hospital some time later, the jury heard.  

William had carboxyhemoglobin level of 61%, the highest level recorded amongst the victims of the fire, Shepherd confirmed. 

He said there was little evidence of heat or burn damage and confirmed William’s cause of death was inhalation of fire fumes. 

Identified by dental records and jewelry

The jury heard Michael Griffiths (18) was identified by his parents Michael and Margaret Griffiths through items of jewellery he was wearing at the time, including a necklace with the inscription “Mick” on it, two signet rings and a watch. 

Shepherd said Michael Griffiths was last seen alive by a friend close to exit five dancing on the dance floor in front of the stage. 

He said the original pathology report noted dense soot in the airways which indicated the inhalation of toxic and noxious substances. 

Shepherd said Michael had a carboxyhemoglobin level of 45% and confirmed his cause of death was rapid incapacitation due to inhalation of fire fumes and heat. 

The inquest heard Robert “Bobby” Hillick (20) was identified by the watch he was wearing on the night and through dental records. 

Shepherd said Robert Hillick attended the Stardust with his friend James Millar (20), who also died in the fire. Their exact location at the time of the fire was first seen is unrecorded.  

Bernard Condon SC, representing the Hillick family, said Robert had moved to Dublin from his native Belfast after getting a job on a building site.  

The jury heard Robert was identified by his brother William through his watch which had a number of dents on the side of the case. 

Robert Hillick had a carboxyhemoglobin level of 20%. 

The pathologist agreed with Simon Mills SC, a member of the Coroner’s legal team, that on its own this level would not be expected to cause death but must be viewed in the context of other factors including the presence of noxious and toxic gases in the air and a significant reduction in the amount of available oxygen in the atmosphere as a result of the fire.   

James Millar was identified by a friend through jewellery and a tattoo of an eagle. 

They both died as a result of rapid incapacitation due to inhalation of fire fumes and heat, Shepherd confirmed. 

The court heard Paula Lewis (19) was identified by her uncle through jewellery, including a dress ring with a purple stone, a cross and part of blouse she was wearing on the night. 

Paula Lewis had attended the Stardust with three friends, including Sandra Lawless who also lost her life in the blaze.

Shepherd said Paula was last seen by her friend Mary Heeney as they made their way to exit five after the fire became visible.

Another friend said that she was holding Paula’s hand when the fire broke out but they lost one another. 

The pathologist said Paula had a carboxyhemoglobin level of 30%.

Shepherd and Swift confirmed her cause of death was rapid incapacitation due to inhalation of fire fumes and heat. 

Shepherd confirmed to Des Fahy KC, representing the family, that any delay in exiting the building would be “very very likely” to have a “deleterious effect” that there would be more inhalation of toxic fumes and more exposure to heat. 

“All of these things will continue longer if the exit is blocked,” he said. 

Paula Lewis’s cause of death was given as rapid incapacitation due to inhalation of fire fumes and heat. 

Eamonn Loughman (18) was one of five victims who was not formally identified until 2007 after advances in DNA testing.  

Dr Shepherd said Eamonn Loughman was last seen by his friend whilst they were running across tables towards exit five. 

Eamonn’s carboxyhemoglobin was the second highest recorded amongst the victims at 59% and this was likely to have caused death without any other factors taken into consideration. 

Dr Shepherd and Dr Carey both agreed that in this case the cause of death was simply due to inhalation of fire fumes. 

Brenda Campbell KC, for the family, said Eamonn was the eldest of seven children.

She said his parents had suffered significant tragedy having already lost one child to cot death and another child who died suddenly from natural causes seven years before Eamonn’s death in the Stardust. 

She said evidence had been heard previously that Eamonn Loughman got “very close” to exit five and that it was a reasonable inference that he must have succumbed to the fire fumes. 

Donna Mahon (17) was identified through a silver bracelet with a Celtic design by her sister Theresa Fitzpatrick, who had given it to her as a present. 

She was last seen on the dancefloor with dance partner Emmet Mulvey who accompanied her as far as the cloakroom near the front entrance before the lights went out. 

Her cause of death was rapid incapacitation due to fire fumes and heat, Shepherd and Carey confirmed. 

Barrister Joseph O’Keefe, on behalf of the family, said it appeared Donna had made it to within a number of paces of the main door but did not get out alive. 

Turned back for her sister

Teresa McDonnell (16) made it close to the front door before turning back to look for her sister, the court heard. 

She was identified by her parents, George and Teresa through a white shoe with a burned heel, white slacks she was wearing on the night, her mother’s eternity ring and a religious necklace. 

The inquest jury heard Teresa attended the Stardust with friends including her sister Lorraine and alerted them to the flames when the fire was first seen.

She was last seen by a friend near exit two heading back into the ballroom for her sister. 

Dr Shepherd confirmed to Mills that there was soot presence in Susan’s airways and an elevated level of carbon monoxide in her system.

He said her cause of death was rapid incapacitation due to inhalation of fire fumes and heat. 

Gerard McGrath (21) attended the Stardust with Kathleen Muldoon who also died in the fire.

He was last seen by a friend sometime between 12am and 12.30am and was identified through dental records.

Gerard’s cause of death was as a result of  rapid incapacitation due to fire fumes and heat.  

The jury heard Susan Morgan (19) was originally from Derry but had moved to the Nazareth House Care Home on the Malahide Road with friends to take up work there.

She was identified by two of nuns from the centre through her signet ring and by her friend Yvonne Blackwell who identified the clothes she was wearing on the night. 

She had attended the Stardust with friends and met her boyfriend Paul Wade, who also died in the fire, at the club. Her cause of death was rapid incapacitation due to the inhalation of fire fumes and heat. 

The inquest continues tomorrow.