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The 48 victims of the Stardust fire. Sasko Lazarov/
stardust inquests

Dental plate could have been 'key' in identifying body of Stardust victim who went unknown for 25 years

Murtagh “Murty” Kavanagh was one of five victims of the fire who was not formally identified until 2007 thanks to advances in DNA testing.

A DENTAL PLATE could have been “key” in identifying the body of a Stardust victim whose remains went unidentified for more than 25 years, an inquest has heard.

A review of the postmortem of Murtagh “Murty” Kavanagh, whose father passed away before his son’s remains were identified using DNA, was heard by the jury on Thursday.

However, this afternoon Coroner Dr Myra Cullinane said the pathologist who performed the original autopsy in 1981 on which the expert witnesses had based their opinion evidence did not make reference in his report to “the fact of a dental plate having been removed”.

Forensic pathologists Dr Richard Shepherd, Doctor Nat Carey and Doctor Benjamin Swift are providing reviews of the evidence into the causes of death of the 48 young people who lost their lives in the fire at the Artane disco in the early hours of Valentine’s Day 1981.

Addressing the jury today, Cullinane said Bernard Condon SC, on behalf of the family, had posed questions during the review of Kavanagh’s postmortem in relation to the “existence or otherwise” of a dental plate and the witnesses had explained that they were unable to assist in this matter.

She informed the panel that depositions could today be read into the record which gave “some more factual basis” to the concerns that the family had about whether or not the late Murtagh Kavanagh had this dental plate in place.

The jury heard the 1981 testimony of a sergeant based in Store Street Garda Station who said he was present at the city morgue when a pathologist took a top denture plate and a sample of dark coloured clothing from a body. He said the property was placed in a plastic bag and labelled before it was passed on to a colleague.

“Members of the jury you will see that the autopsy was performed by the pathologist, and those were the documents on which the expert witnesses based their opinion evidence but [the pathologist] does not make reference in his report to the fact of a dental plate having been removed,” Cullinane said.

In her pen portrait earlier this year, Kavanagh’s sister Terry Jones said her father had been asked for dental records for her brother, which could not be located, but had “absolutely stressed” to detectives that Murty had a partial dental plate due to a sporting incident.

She said the family had no private funeral or burial for Murty and did not know which coffin was his when they attended the mass and burials for the five unidentified people.

Kavanagh was one of five victims who was not formally identified until 2007 thanks to advances in DNA testing.

Condon today said Jones had outlined in her pen portrait how her father had been “truly broken” by the events and would “constantly refer” to the partial dental plate and the fact that it was not used in identification.

In response to a question from counsel, Shepherd said it was “possible” that a plate could form the basis of an identification.

“There needs to be some records but if they’re not dental records, they can be records of the laboratory where the plate was manufactured so it can be the key to establishing an identity if that previous information is still available to compare it with back in 1981,” he said.

Carey also addressed counsel, telling him: “The only thing I would say is that it’s apparent from the evidence that a view could be taken that he was the only one with a dental plate amongst those others. I think that would be a matter for the coroner to resolve really.”

Cullinane clarified that it would have been a matter for the coroner in 1981 to clarify.

Expressing his gratitude to the pathologists for answering his questions, Condon said unfortunately, Murtagh’s father had died before the identification, and it had been a matter of importance to him.

The inquest also heard today how two sisters who died in the Stardust fire having made it to within feet of an exit door were subsequently identified by the jewellery they were wearing on the night.

Mary (19) and Martina Keegan (16) had attended the disco with their sister Antoinette, who survived after she was pulled unconscious from the club.

The sisters were found alongside their friend Mary Kenny (19), who also perished in the blaze and who, the inquest heard today, was identified by her sister Carol through a ring she was wearing which her sister had purchased for her just weeks earlier.

Shepherd told the jury at Dublin District Coroner’s Court that Martina Keegan attended the Stardust with her boyfriend David Morton (19), who also died in the fire, and her sister Antoinette.

He said she was last seen by her sister Antoinette about six feet from exit four.

Des Fahy KC, for the family, said the jury had previously heard evidence from Antoinette, who was present with both her sisters in the club on the night and told how they had made it to six feet from exit four before there was a “stampede” and they were knocked to the ground.

He said Keegan had told how she and her sisters and two other friends, including Mary Kenny who also lost her life in the blaze, were all holding hands before Antoinette lost consciousness because of the thick black smoke.

Fahy suggested to the pathologists that this might be considered “living evidence” of the effects of the toxic and noxious environment in which people in the club found themselves in.

He said the girls’ parents, Christina and John, had both been longtime campaigners in the Stardust campaign but unfortunately both had died before they were able to see the holding of these fresh inquests.

The court heard Martina was identified through items of jewellery, including a signet ring with the initials MK engraved on it.

Shepherd said Martina had a carboxyhemoglobin level of 39%. 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.

He confirmed that Martina Keegan’s cause of death was as a result of rapid incapacitation due to the inhalation of fire fumes and heat.

Mary Keegan was identified through a necklace with a series of hearts, the inquest heard.

She had a carboxyhemoglobin level of 33% and dense soot was noted in her airways consistent with the inhalation of fire fumes.

Both Shepherd and Carey noted the presence of significant burns but said it was difficult to distinguish between pre death and post death burns. They confirmed Mary Keegan’s death was due to rapid incapacitation due to inhalation of fire fumes and heat.

Mary Kenny, who attended the disco with the sisters on the night, was identified through jewellery she had been wearing at the time.

Sean Guerin SC, representing Mary Kenny’s family, said one of these items was a ring which her sister Carol, who identified her, had bought for her only a few weeks earlier.

Her death was also caused by rapid incapacitation due to inhalation of fire fumes and heat, Shepherd told Mills.

Margaret Kiernan had attended the Stardust on the night with three friends. Outlining her last movements, Shepherd said she was last seen at the bottom of the stairs in the foyer near the phone heading towards exit two – the main door.

The pathologist confirmed to Mills that Margaret Kiernan had very high levels of carboxyhemoglobin which indicated that she was exposed to a very high level of carbon monoxide. Her cause of death was due to inhalation of fire fumes, he said.

Brenda Campbell KC, for the family, put it to the pathologist that Kiernan died because she was in a noxious environment for too long to survive.

“Without doubt, yes,” Shepherd confirmed, adding that time was “crucial” in such a situation.

Sandra Lawless, 18 at the time, was identified through dental records and her jewellery.

Shepherd said she was last seen alive by her friend as they headed towards an exit. He said her cause of death was due to rapid incapacitation due to inhalation of fire fumes and heat.

The inquest heard Marie Kennedy (17), was alive but “just breathing and no more” when she was rescued from the Stardust and was brought to Jervis Street Hospital.

Resuscitation attempts, however, were futile and she was pronounced dead in the early hours of 14 February 1981 in hospital.

The court heard a postmortem review of Kennedy’s death was carried out by pathologist Dr Marjorie Turner on behalf of the family and she agreed with Shepherd that the cause of death was due to the inhalation of fire fumes.

The last pathological reports heard related to married couple Frances (25) and Maureen Lawlor (26).

Shepherd said the couple were last seen alive leaving the dancefloor together.

He confirmed that both died as a result of rapid incapacitation due to fire flames and heat.

Joe Brolly BL, for the family, said the couple’s daughter and only child Lisa, who was just 17 months old at the time, was present at the inquest to hear the evidence related to her parents.

He asked Shepherd a number of questions in relation to the evidence given about both her father and mother and asked if she could take it that they “wouldn’t have suffered any pain”. The witness confirmed it was likely in both case that they would have rapidly fallen unconscious and would not have felt any pain.

The inquest continues next Tuesday.