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The 48 victims of the Stardust fire. SASKO LAZAROV/ROLLINGNEWS.IE

Witnesses say they saw exit doors chained and locked in Stardust nightclub on night of fire

A former employee said the doors were always locked with a padlock and chain.

INQUEST WITNESSES HAVE given evidence that they saw exit doors chained and locked at the Stardust nightclub on the night of the fatal fire, with one former employee saying that exits “were always locked by chains and padlocks”.  

Trevor King, who was 17 at the time, today told the jury in the Dublin District Coroner’s Court that the practice of locking the doors was taking place up to two years before the night the blaze swept through the Stardust in the early hours of 14 February, 1981.  

In his original statement, which was read into the record by the court registrar, King said that after he saw flames over the partitioned-off section of the Stardust, he and his friend went into the passageway to exit three and there were “ten or fifteen fellows” ahead of him.   

“I heard someone say, ‘Jesus Christ, the doors are locked’,” said King.

He said people ran at the door and it burst open, and when they got outside there was a van backed up to the steps.   

“The crowd stopped for a couple of seconds as we were all jammed in. A couple of fellows climbed over the railing and I got over too,” he said.  

“I heard people trying to break out of the gents’ toilet. I saw the small panels breaking and I heard them kicking at the steel panel which was over the windows. They were not able to break through it,” said King.  

He said that he and his friend tried to kick in the toilet windows but were unable to do so.  

King further gave evidence that he used to work in the Stardust, where he said staff used to stack rubbish bags in the passageway leading to exit one.  

“The exit was always locked by means of a chain and a padlock. The exits were always locked by chains and padlocks. I think it was to keep people from getting in for nothing,” he said.    

He confirmed to a member of the coroner’s legal team, Gemma McLoughlin-Burke BL, that when he worked in the main bar, the keys to the doors were kept in a cardboard box at the bar.  

“The barman would give you the key. You left the bags in the corridor, and then the next day you would dump them. He would give you the key and say make sure you lock the door when you come back through,” said King.  

He said he could not say if he had ever seen the doors locked when patrons were inside.

He told McLoughlin-Burke that he had heard of the practice of draping chains and locks over the doors to make it look that they were locked but said that he did not personally see this happening.

He also said he did not ever see anyone getting in for free through the exit doors.   

In response to questioning by Michael O’Higgins SC, representing a number of the families of the deceased, King said he was told by the head barman to lock exit one after disposing of the bags.

He was asked by O’Higgins if all of the exits were kept locked with chains and padlocks.  

“As far as I’m aware. Some of them you couldn’t see, but there were some you could see plainly. I didn’t go up to check, they appeared to be locked. The chain would be wrapped around the two panic bars. As far as I was aware, it went on the whole night,” he said.  

O’Higgins said the inquest had heard some evidence that this practice of locking the doors only started weeks before the fire, to which King replied: “Certainly not.”  

In response to questions from Des Fahy KC, representing a number of the families, King confirmed that he had given evidence to the tribunal in 1981 that exit doors were being chained and locked in the Stardust during cabaret nights.

He said that this was taking place between 18 months and two years before the fire.  

The jury also heard evidence from Martina Doyle, who said that she saw a chain and lock on an exit door on the night.

In her original statement, Doyle said the chain was wrapped around both panic bars with a lock dangling from the chain.  

“I am positive that these doors were locked by this chain and lock,” she said.   

She said that after she got outside when the fire started, there was a blue van parked with its back towards the door she left through. She said there was a metal handrail on the left, and she could not get past as the van was parked there and she was not able to squeeze past.  

“I was not able to get out sideways or even squeeze between the van and the rail,” she said, adding that a friend lifted her over the rail.  

And the jury also heard the evidence of Martina Monaghan, who, in her original statement, said she heard people shouting: “We can’t get the door open.”   

“I saw flames everywhere in the area that had been partitioned off. The lights went out and everywhere was black smoke.

“I saw lumps of the ceiling coming down in balls of fire and falling on top of people, everybody was screaming,” Monaghan said.  

She said she was pushed by the crowd towards exit three and somebody pushed a chair across her leg, knocking her to the ground.   

“Everybody was crossing over the chair and my left leg was stuck under the chair,” she said.

Monaghan said her sister pulled her out from under the chair and she was pushed towards exit three, but she heard someone shouting: “It’s locked.”  

Monaghan told McLoughlin-Burke that she saw something “like a hologram of fire” that she could see spread across the ceiling tiles.

She confirmed that it looked as if pieces of white foam on fire were falling from the ceiling.  

She said she could hear people screaming that the door was locked. She said that when she got out of exit three, there was a van blocking one side of the door.  

The inquest continues tomorrow in the Pillar Room of the Rotunda Hospital.