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The 48 victims of the Stardust fire Sasko Lazarov/

Stardust survivor tells inquest that patrons 'were trapped like rats trying to get out'

The inquest will resume on Tuesday, 7 November.

A STARDUST SURVIVOR was just 19 years old when he helped rescue two girls from the blaze by smashing a window and prising steel frames before pulling them to safety, an inquest has heard.

Another survivor told how, as he tried to escape the blaze, he thought he was wearing gloves but subsequently realised what he was feeling was his skin coming off.

“We were actually going mad in there. We were trapped like rats trying to get out and we couldn’t,” Anthony Byrne told the jury yesterday.

The first witness, Peter Burke, told the Dublin District Coroner’s Court jury that after getting out through the main door, he and a friend went to the window immediately to the left of the front door and helped two girls who were inside to escape.

In his original statements to gardaí in 1981, Burke described how he and his friend, Leslie Mulligan, put their coats around their arms and broke the glass on one of the windows.

Burke said that when they had all the panes of glass broken, they then broke the steel frames. He said the panes of glass on this window were about six inches square and they had to “prise the steel frames with a piece of wood to make a gap in the window”.

Burke said he stuck his hand in, “felt a body inside the window” and pulled out a girl who was “gasping for air”.

He said he lowered the girl to safety before he shouted in the window again, saw “a shadow” and put his hand in. He said a girl grabbed him and he also pulled her to safety through the window.

Burke told Mark Tottenham BL, a member of the coroner’s legal team, that he did not know who either of the two girls were.

Tottenham said he wanted to acknowledge the efforts of the witness to help the two women escape and told Burke he had been “very brave”.

Describing the moment he first became aware of the fire, Burke said he had been on the dancefloor and was on his way back to his seat when he noticed the smell of smoke before looking up and seeing the flames in the West Alcove.

Burke said once the shutter was lifted up “it was just like an explosion” and the fire “ran up the wall and literally ran across the ceiling then”.

He said he saw “black drips” coming down from the ceiling which were “like tar”.

Evidence was also heard today from a number of other survivors who were in the Stardust ballroom when the fatal fire broke out in the early hours of 14 February 1981, claiming the lives of 48 young people.

Anthony Byrne told the jury of his failed attempts to open exit number four as the blaze took hold.

Byrne said he was physically strong at the time, was training as a boxer and was a member of the defence forces but despite his best efforts he was unable to open the door.

Byrne also told lawyers at the inquest that as he tried to escape, he thought he was wearing gloves but subsequently realised what he was feeling was his skin coming off. He said at this point he “couldn’t stick the pain anymore” and believed he was going to die.

He said by “pure luck” he managed to get to exit five and a bouncer pulled him outside to safety.

In his original statements to gardaí, which were read into the record, Byrne said he went to exit four where there were about 15 people trying to open the door. He said some of them were “going mad” and “punching and kicking the door” in an effort to open it.

He said he tried to force the bar up towards the ceiling and it moved a little but “the door would not open”. He said he remembered seeing a padlock on the door but could not recall a chain across the bars.

“The door did not open any bit … There was panic at the door and I thought I was going to be killed.”

Byrne said he then walked back into the smoke to “knock myself out”.

He said he arrived at exit five and a bouncer pulled him out. He said he thought he was the last person out through exit number five.

The witness told Tottenham that when the fire was noticed, he went back to his table before going to exit four.

Bryne said he was looking for another exit but by that stage he was in severe pain.

“So I walked into the smoke, took a mouthful of smoke and I said to myself ‘dear god no, not this way’ and the doorman pulled me out.”

He said he had no shirt on and confirmed to counsel that this was because it had been “burned off”. Byrne spent two weeks in hospital where he was treated for burns to his hands, arms and face.

Byrne became upset as he told Brenda Campbell KC, representing a number of families of the deceased: “We were actually going mad in there. We were trapped like rats trying to get out and we couldn’t.”

Further evidence

Brian Baitson, 18 at the time, also gave evidence of failed attempts to leave through exit four.

He said he had been attending the Stardust for the first time on the night of the fire. Baitson said he remembered he had been dancing with his friends to the song “Lorraine” by the group Bad Manners when someone shouted “fire”.

He said he ran to exit four where there were about six or seven people attempting to open the door. He said they were pushing and pulling the door but couldn’t open it.

Baitson said he kicked the door in frustration and then ran back across the stage area to his friends.

The witness told Tottenham that by this stage the situation was “bedlam” with people running in all directions. He said the curtain had been raised up and the fire was spreading rapidly.

Baitson said there were “droplets” of melted plastic falling from the ceiling and said it was only after the fire he realised one of them had burned a hole in his jumper when his mother pointed out the burn mark, which measured about two or three inches.

He said there was a “sea of people” and there was “a big heave” before he finally escaped through exit four, which was open by this stage.

Baitson also described seeing a girl whose clothes were on fire running towards the stage area. He said he didn’t know who the girl was or if she got out of the fire.

He told Brenda Campbell KC, for a number of families of the deceased, that when he went to exit four originally, there was a chain across the two handles of the door.

“I think that stopped it from opening,” he said. “There was a tiny little bit of give … It was going forward and it was coming back but it wasn’t shifting any further”.

Siobhan McConalogue, who was 16 at the time, said she worked in the Stardust as a lounge girl and was admitted for free on the night of the fire through the staff entrance at the Lantern Rooms.

She said she started moving towards an exit after the fire was first noticed but turned back to look for her friend. She said she fell on the ground and another friend came and pulled her outside through exit number five.

McConalogue told Gemma McLoughlin Burke BL, a member of the coroner’s legal team, that she saw a chain and padlock on the exit four earlier in the night.

“I had met somebody that evening that I was chatting to, and I remember standing talking to him and playing with the chain on the door as I was talking to him … I was actually playing with that chain as I was speaking to him and that is a memory that will never leave me.”

She said she believed this was before the dance competition took place.

McConalogue said when she got out of the building, she went over to try and help somebody who was lying on the grass at the front of the building. She said she did not realise the person had already passed away.

Witness Catherine Murphy said she had been on the dancefloor on the night when her friend started to scream and said “the place is on fire”. She said her friend was so hysterical that she had to slap her across the face.

She said she and her friends made their way to exit five. She fell over and as one of her friends came back to get her, she grabbed her leg and her friend pulled her up and out the door.

She confirmed to Katie Stevens BL, that she knew Jacqueline Croker (19) – who lost her life in the blaze – and had been speaking to her on the night.

She said when her group went out dancing, Jacqueline said she would mind the bags and coats and that was the last time she saw her.

The inquest will resume on Tuesday, 7 November.