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Sasko Lazarov/
stardust inquest

No evidence of accelerant or arson in Stardust west alcove, inquest hears

An experienced fire investigator gave expert evidence to the quest today.

NO ACCELERANT WAS found by gardaí investigating the Stardust fire and there was no evidence that the fire spotted in the west alcove of the club was the result of arson, an expert witness has told an inquest jury.

The fire investigator also agreed that witnesses who reported a fire outside of the Stardust were seeing a distinct fire from the one seen by patrons inside the club in the same west alcove.

Dr Will Hutchinson gave evidence in the Dublin District Coroner’s Court on the scientific method used in his assessment of the fire that killed 48 people in the early hours of Valentine’s Day, 1981.

Dr Hutchinson, who has 23 years of experience as a fire investigator, confirmed to Séan Guerin SC, representing a number of the families of the victims, that it appeared the garda investigation in 1981 focused on the possibility the fire was arson and that the process of investigating the scene would be conducted differently now.

Gardaí were aware that the west alcove was where the fire was first observed and focused on that area, Guerin said. Qualified technical examiners undertook in “a methodical and painstaking fashion” to sift through the site over three days. Samples were obtained and analysed and no accelerant was found.

He said that there was no mention of Polyzote, a polystyrene insulation, in any of the reports and no indication that anyone looked for it.

“As a forensic scientist, you’re trained to look at everything and question everything, but if you’re not aware of what you’re looking for, it can make detecting that difficult,” he said.

Guerin said that Fiacre Mulholland, who was a sales representative of fire insulation equipment at the time, had given evidence he could see the heating duct in the ceiling over the stage and saw “a significant length” wrapped in expanded polystyrene insulation.

Guerin said that because Mulholland did not give a statement on this at the time, this element of the data did not feature in developing a hypothesis about the cause of the fire, and it was not until he gave an account years later that the issue was properly considered and tested.

Dr Hutchinson confirmed there was evidence suggesting a fire occurred in the roof space before it was seen in the west alcove. He confirmed it was a small fire when initially seen and contained within the west alcove, above which the ceiling was intact, so that could not be what witnesses saw from outside the building earlier.

Dr Hutchinson confirmed there was difficulty identifying what fuel was present in the roof space to account for what witnesses saw from outside. He said if nearby residents were correct in their timing of when they saw the fire, then it followed that there must have been fuel in the ceiling.

Guerin said the first call to emergency services about the fire was at 1.43am, and Dr Hutchinson confirmed that this call was made by Laurence Neville, a barman.

Guerin said, on Neville’s account, the witness saw the fire three times and gave a distinct account of the development of the fire each time, and was able to say that he made the call to the Fire Service between the second and third times he saw it.

Guerin said it was a matter for the jury whether they accepted this account, but it seemed that at 1.43am, the fire was just starting to reach the carpet tiles on the wall at the back of the west alcove but had not reached the ceiling. So, anyone who saw fire outside at that time was not seeing this same fire, said Guerin, to which Dr Hutchinson agreed.

Guerin said the emergency services then received a second call at 1.43am or 1.44am, from a woman who saw the fire from her home nearby.

This woman said she wasn’t sure if the fire was at the Stardust or a timber yard nearby, but she made the call some minutes after seeing the fire, at which time, according to Neville, the fire had not yet broken out from the west alcove. Guerin said the fire she saw must have been distinct from the fire in the west alcove, to which Dr Hutchinson agreed.

Guerin referenced the evidence of Elizabeth Marley, who worked as a waitress in the nightclub. In her account, Marley said she passed the screened off section of the nightclub around 1.30am to 1.35am and smelled smoke. She said she saw the fire when the shutters were down, which Guerin said was earlier than anyone who saw the fire after the shutters were lifted.

Guerin said if the jury were satisfied that the times were correct, then there was a fire in the roof space that was not caused by fire in the west alcove, so there must have been fuel in the roof space, even if it was not known what that fuel was.

Dr Hutchinson agreed and confirmed, as per the evidence of Mulholland, Polyzote or expanded polystyrene coating the warm air heating ducts would constitute “quite substantial fuel” for the fire that would produce “substantial quantities of smoke and noxious fumes, very substantial quantities of heat, and would also generate molten and burning liquid”.

He confirmed that if there were substantial quantities of Polyzote in the roof space and it all burned, it could lead to a very substantial fire that would interfere with the electrical system.

He confirmed that there were also “readily ignitable” plastic ducts located over vents in the west alcove, and if these were melting, it would introduce “melting, burning liquid” into the west alcove.

Dr Hutchinson confirmed to Guerin that there was no evidence that anyone deliberately started the fire in the west alcove, meaning there was no evidence of arson in the alcove.

The inquest continues next Monday in the Pillar Room of the Rotunda Hospital.