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The 48 victims of the Stardust fire Sasko Lazarov/

Woman tells Stardust inquest she left club after 'piece of ceiling' fell on table on night of fire

The jury at the inquest today heard evidence from a number of patrons who attended Stardust on the night of the fire.

A WOMAN HAS told the Stardust inquest that she and her friends were the first people to leave the club on the night of the fatal blaze when a piece of ceiling “fell down” on the table they were sitting at just minutes after a small fire was first seen in a partitioned off area. 

Another patron told the jury that before the fire was first noticed, two of his friends remarked they could feel heat coming from the roof while they were dancing. 

O’Hanlon was one of a number of witnesses to give evidence today who were seated at a table located directly in front of a partitioned off area where the fire was first noticed. The group were also amongst the first people to see the fire and leave the club. 

“I remember thinking, like why would that happen so quickly? That’s what I was more frightened of because when I saw the fire initially it was far away, far enough that we were safe but at that stage I knew,” O’Hanlon told the jury at Dublin District Coroner’s Court today.

She said she believed the heat from the fire caused the ceiling at the table to fall down.

In response to questions from coroner Dr Myra Cullinane, O’Hanlon said she could not recall whether the material was alight or how much had come down.

The witness, who was 17 at the time, told the inquest that shortly after a disco dancing competition ended, she sat down at the table and one of her friends asked if she could smell smoke. She said she got down on her hunkers and looked under the partition, which was still down at this stage, and could see that some of the seats were on fire.

She said she began collecting her belongings to leave when a friend “pushed me aside” because “the ceiling was dropping”.

O’Hanlon added: “We just panicked and ran out at that stage. I wasn’t really hanging around to see what it was.”

She said once the piece of the ceiling fell on the table, she “moved very quickly” and she and her friends immediately made their way out of the building through the front door.

O’Hanlon told Gemma McLoughlin Burke BL, a member of the coroner’s legal team, that the fire was right at the very back of the bank of seating when she saw it and was not on the wall or the ceiling at that stage.

She said a member of staff came over and lifted the shutter because someone had alerted him to the fact there was a fire behind the partition.

Asked what the timeframe was between first noticing the fire and the piece of ceiling coming down, O’Hanlon said “a few minutes”. She said she could not remember how big the piece was and did not notice whether it was melted or on fire.

She said when they got to the main entrance way there were only one or two people ahead of them. “We were literally the first out,” she said.

Both of the doors were open when they got out, she said, and a number of people came out after them.

Asked about the doors closing after they got out, O’Hanlon said it seemed like they were “only out a short time” when it happened and said there were two doormen “trying to hold the doors closed”.

“We didn’t understand it at the time, but they were obviously trying to stop people from going back in.”

She told Sean Guerin SC, representing a number of families of the deceased, that the piece of ceiling that fell wasn’t a complete section. She said it was “like Perspex” and it was “just like sections of it were coming down”.

She agreed with counsel that she thought the heat of the fire caused the ceiling at the table to fall down.

“Where you were sitting at the time, there was no fire under that part of the ceiling that could have been causing that heat or that damage and yet it appeared to you that the heat from the fire was causing the ceiling to fall?” he asked.

“Yes”, Ms O’Hanlon replied.

She confirmed to Des Fahy KC, representing ten of the families, that it was a matter of between three and six minutes, from when she first smelled smoke until she left the building.

“It was only a few minutes, it happened very very quickly,” she said. “We reacted straight away to what we saw and then left the building as soon as possible.”

Pamela McGuinness told the inquest that she was with O’Hanlon in the Stardust on the night of 13 February 1981, when they noticed smoke coming from the partitioned off area shortly after the disco competition finished.

The witness, who was 17 at the time of the fire, gave evidence to McLoughlin Burke that when she crouched down to look at the fire she noticed it was across two seats. She said after seeing the fire, she and her friends were “all in a panic” and immediately took everything from the table and ran out.

McGuinness confirmed to Michael O’Higgins SC, representing a number of families of the deceased, that when they got to the main door, exit two, it was open but after they got out the doors were closed again.

Further evidence

Evidence was also heard from Deirdre Ryan who said that when she first smelled smoke, she thought it was a cigarette in an ashtray but told how, when she looked up, she saw smoke coming through the shutters of the partitioned off area.

Ryan, who was a 19-year-old shop assistant in Easons at the time, said after her friend looked under the screen and saw the flames on the chair, she picked up her coat and started shouting to people around her that there was a fire.

Frances Winston, who was 17 and was attending the Stardust for the first time on the night of the fire, confirmed to lawyers at the inquest that she was the first in her group of friends to smell smoke. She said they were seated at a table directly in front of the partitioned area in the West Alcove where the fire was first noticed.

Winston’s garda statements were also read into the record today.

In a statement given on 8 April 1981, she said that while she had been attending a tribunal of inquiry before Mr Justice Ronan Keane the previous day, she heard a man she knew to be [doorman] John Fitzsimons say to [Stardust patron] Valerie Walsh: “Yis are only telling one side of the story. Wait til next week when we get up there and we’ll tell all about the underage drinking and people smoking hash and all the people who should not be there.”

Asked by Bernard Condon SC, representing a number of families of the deceased, how she felt about this interaction, Winston said: “I felt he was threatening us as such. We were only school kids.”

She confirmed that despite this incident, she went on to give her honest evidence to the tribunal.

McGuinness also gave a statement to gardaí at the time, stating that she and others had been approached by a Stardust bouncer who said they were “all getting off easy”. She said she was “worried” about giving evidence as a result.

Brian Killeen, who was 18 at the time, told barrister Kate Hanley, representing a number of families of the deceased including the family of Teresa McDonnell (16), that McDonnell had been part of the group he was with on the night of the fire.

McDonnell subsequently lost her life in the blaze.

He said the teenager had been with him as he made his way to exit two but he said she then decided to go back and tell her sister Lorraine to get out. He confirmed this was the last time he saw McDonnell.

John Molloy, another patron on the night, told McLoughlin Burke that before the fire was first noticed, two of his friends remarked they could feel heat coming from the roof while they were dancing in the middle of the floor near to the stage after the disco competition was over. He said he himself thought it was quite warm at the time but “didn’t think anything of it”.

He said at around 1.35am one of his friends drew his attention to a seat which was “smouldering”.

He told one of the lawyers representing the family of the late Richard Bennett, who lost his life in the fire, that he knew Bennett and had chatted to him on the night. The witness said the last time he had seen the young man was about half an hour before he left the club.