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

Stardust witness tells inquest that doorman told him: 'They could not get out, the doors were padlocked'

Michael O’Toole told the jury that he believes that keys that doorman Michael Kavanagh took from his pocket were the keys to the Stardust.

A WITNESS HAS told the Stardust inquest that shortly after the fatal fire, a doorman took a bunch of keys from his pocket, held them in his hand and told him: “They could not get out, the doors were padlocked”.

Michael O’Toole said he believed the keys doorman Michael Kavanagh was holding at the time were the keys to the Stardust.

O’Toole also told the jury at Dublin District Coroner’s Court on Friday that he “lost count” of the number of times Kavanagh told him the doors of the club were locked.

Giving evidence to the inquest in September, Kavanagh said he did not remember having a bunch of keys in his possession at the O’Toole house in the hours after the blaze, which claimed the lives of 48 young people when it broke out in the early hours of Valentine’s Day, 1981.

Asked by counsel at the time if he had any comment to make about the fact that O’Toole took the view that they were the keys of the Stardust, Kavanagh said: “None whatsoever, no”.

Kavanagh, who was 20 years old at the time, initially told gardaí and journalists on 16 February 1981 that he had unlocked the fire exit doors at the club.

However, he retracted this statement on 19 February after Michael O’Toole’s father James informed gardaí that the doorman had told him that the doors were locked when he was in their house at around 3am on the morning of the fire.

At the inquest earlier this year, Kavanagh admitted that he had lied when he initially told gardaí that he had opened the doors on the night. He said he did not know who had opened the doors and said he went to gardaí to tell them the truth, that he had not opened the doors, because he felt he was being made a “scapegoat”.

In his evidence to the jury on Friday, Michael O’Toole confirmed to Des Fahy KC, representing a number of families, that Kavanagh told him “multiple times” that the doors were locked.

“You would have lost count if you were counting,” the witness said.

O’Toole said that while he and the bouncer were in his kitchen shortly after the fire, Kavanagh said: “I’ll sue him for everything he has got. They could not get out, the doors were padlocked.”

He said Kavanagh took keys out of his pocket as he was saying this.

Asked by lawyers at the inquest who Kavanagh was referring to when he said “I’ll sue him”, O’Toole said he believed it was a reference to Stardust manager Eamon Butterly.

In a deposition to gardaí earlier this year, O’Toole said: “What landed on me was the gravity of what he had said as we had spent an hour up there looking at people being pulled out. My mother and father saw this too. There were four of us in the kitchen at the time.”

The witness said Kavanagh then put these keys back in his pocket and they left the house and went around the hospitals in Dublin looking for Kavanagh’s girlfriend, Paula Byrne, who lost her life in the fire, and one of O’Toole’s friends who was later found safe and well at home.

O’Toole told Mark Tottenham BL, a member of the coroner’s legal team, that his house was about 50 or 60 yards from the Stardust. He said his father woke him up at 1.38am to tell him the nightclub was on fire and he immediately rushed to the scene. The witness said this took under a minute.

He said when he arrived at the scene, he could see the flames coming out of the roof at the back of the building. He said he looked at the fire for around 30 seconds or a minute and while he did so it was “powering up”. He said the smoke that was coming from it was “deep, heavy, black” going straight up.

He said the only people he could see leaving were two young girls he thought were staff because they were wearing white tops.

He said he could see the illumination from the flames “like the glow of a bonfire” and estimated the flames were about 12 to 15 feet in height.

“I couldn’t believe people weren’t coming out because the fire as I was looking at it, it was very strong. There was a glow off it….it was developed or developing, and I couldn’t see anyone coming out.”

“It was as though no one knew there was a fire blazing in the roof?” Joe Brolly BL, representing a number of families of the victims, asked. “That’s right,” the witness confirmed.

O’Toole said as crowds started to emerge, he met Kavanagh who asked him if he had seen his girlfriend. He said the pair decided to go and check the hospitals but they first went to the O’Toole family home and it was here that he and his parents heard the doorman say the doors were locked and people couldn’t get out.

He confirmed Kavanagh had a bunch of keys in his hand at the time but said he could not remember what the keys looked like.

“All I remember is…there was as bunch of keys in his hand,” O’Toole said. “He took them out of his pocket when he was saying what he was saying about the doors.”

O’Toole said he knew Kavanagh well as they had gone to school together and trained with the same football team.

In his original statement made to gardaí in 1981, O’Toole said as they were going around the hospitals, Kavanagh repeated that the doors were padlocked on a number of occasions.

He said Kavanagh also told him: “Mick, I’m ashamed to say I’m a bouncer in the Stardust. We were told to keep the doors locked.”

He said he dropped Kavanagh back to the Stardust at approximately 5am.

He subsequently met Kavanagh the next day and asked him if he had verified to gardaí when he spoke to them that the doors were locked.

“He replied that everyone said they were open,” said O’Toole.

He said his father subsequently informed him that Michael Kavanagh had stated on the Today Tonight programme that he had opened all the doors in the Stardust that night.

Evidence was also heard on Friday from Neill Campbell who told how he pushed two young girls to within six or seven feet of an exit and told them to leave before turning back to find his brother.

The court heard one of the two girls Campbell steered towards the exit was Josephine Glen (16).

Glen was brought to hospital but suffered catastrophic injuries as a result of smoke inhalation and died on 19 February 1981 when her family had to make the decision to turn off her life support machine, the inquest heard.

Brenda Campbell KC, representing Glen’s family, extended her thanks to Campbell on behalf of Glen’s sisters Sheena and Alison for the efforts he made on the night to help the young woman.

Campbell told the inquest that when the fire was pointed out to him, he grabbed the two girls and they all ran to exit five. He said there were a lot of people around the exit kicking the door and trying to open it. He said he pushed the girls in front of him, told them to get out and then he went back in to look for his brother.

He told Tottenham the room was pitch black by then and he hit something like a wall or a table or a person and fell to the ground. Campbell said he was struggling to breath by this stage, fell to the floor and thought he was going to die. The next thing he remembered was waking up outside being sick.

He said he had no memory of how he got out of the building. Campbell said he suffered burns to his ear, chin, nose and hands.

Jean Hogan, 19 at the time, was trapped in the toilets of the club on the night of the fire and subsequently spent five days in hospital.

Hogan initially ran to the main entrance after the fire was noticed but a girl caught her and dragged her into the men’s toilets.

She told Gemma McLoughlin Burke, a member of the coroner’s legal team that when they tried to get back out there were flames on the door.

She said there were about 10 or 12 people in the toilets.

“Originally… we thought we were coming out the exit,” she said. “When we realised we were in a toilet people were trying to break the windows or see could we get out that way but we couldn’t because there were bars.”

She said things were “frantic” by that stage and the smoke was getting thicker.

Hogan said they tried the door and then realised “we’re not going to get out of here” before members of the fire brigade came a few minutes later and brought them out.

The witness confirmed she was in the company of Margaret Kiernan, who died in the blaze, earlier in the night. She said they were work colleagues and socialised together.

Harry Mahood told the inquest there was panic at exit five as he was leaving, and someone stopped the group he was in and told them to “to get as many people as we could out”.

“We could see people and shadows through the smoke in the hall and we ran in and grabbed what we could and brought them out,” he said in his original statement to gardaí in 1981.

Mahood said he saw a girl walking around the hall “as if she was lost”.

“I saw her fall and then I saw her clothes and body on fire. She was about 15 or 20 feet from the door,” he said. “I could see other people, maybe about four and they seemed to walk away from the exit.”

Sean Guerin SC, representing a number of families of the deceased, extended his thanks to Mahood on behalf of the families for his bravery and his efforts to help people escape the blaze.

“There’s no doubt that there would have been significantly more than 48 families who suffered the horror of this tragedy but for the efforts of you and others like you who helped save people on the night,” he said.