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The 48 victims of the Stardust fire Sasko Lazarov/

Stardust patron saw material like 'melting plastic' coming from ceiling on night of fire, inquest hears

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

THE STARDUST INQUEST has heard how, on the night of the fire, a patron saw material like “burning, melting plastic” or “liquid” dripping from the ceiling directly over a partitioned area where a seat was on fire. 

The inquest previously heard that sections of the nightclub could be partitioned by blinds that were drawn down and that several witnesses first saw flames behind a shutter that closed off the left section of the hall. 

Kenneth Strong, who was 19 years old at the time of the blaze, told gardaí in 1981 that the material he saw falling was about “twice the size of my fist” and was like “burning, melting plastic”. 

The jury at Dublin District Coroner’s Court also heard evidence today that David Heenan, who was also in the Stardust that night, saw “some sort of liquid dripping down from the ceiling”.

In his evidence to the court today, Strong told Gemma McLoughlin Burke BL, a member of the coroner’s legal team, that the material falling from the ceiling was what first drew his attention to the fire.

He confirmed this material was something like burning plastic and said it was “definitely on fire” when he saw it.

“My impression was it came from the ceiling,” he said.

He later again confirmed to Dáithi Mac Cárthaigh BL, representing the family of Marie Kennedy who died in the blaze, that he believed it was coming from the ceiling.

“Thats how I recall it and that’s the one thing that has stuck in my mind,” he said.

Strong also told the inquest today that he went to the main door, exit two, when he decided to leave because he knew it was “the only one I could get out”.

Asked by Des Fahy KC, representing a number of families of the deceased, what he meant by that, Strong said it was “because of the practice of putting chains on doors”.

He said he had “a clear memory” of other occasions when the exit doors would have chains on them.

The witness said when he left the building, there were only about 10 or 15 people already outside.

In response to questions from coroner Dr Myra Cullinane, Strong said he only spent a matter of seconds observing the fire before he made the decision to leave. “It was my impulse to get out,” he said.

Asked what he thought of the fire when he saw it in terms of his potential danger, the witness replied: “Bad news, bad news. Absolutely … it wasn’t a conscious thought … I just seen the fire and thought: ‘Not good’.”

In his original garda statements, which were read into the record today, Strong said that while he was dancing in front of the stage at around 1.30am, he noticed smoke “drifting over” the partitioned area of the hall.

He said he could see flames at the right-hand side of the curtain and some of the seats on fire. He said what originally drew his attention to the fire was that he saw something “on fire” falling from the ceiling.

“It was only one piece I saw fall and after that I turned around and went out,” he said. “There could have been more, but I didn’t look around to see.”

Strong said he told his friend: “There’s going to be a fire there, I’m getting out.”

He said as far as he could remember, the material fell from the ceiling directly over where the seat was on fire.

Strong said as he made his way to the exit, he could feel the heat of the fire as he passed.

He said once outside, he saw patrons of the club smashing windows over the veranda and “falling out”.

The witness confirmed to Fahy, representing a number of families including those of Liam Dunne, Mary and Martina Keegan and David Morton – all of whom died in the blaze – that they were all part of a group of about 10 or 15 Superquinn workers who were in the Stardust that night.

He said he could not recall whether the friend he tapped on the shoulder to say he was leaving was Liam Dunne but said it “may very well have been” him.

He confirmed that he pointed out the fire to the group around him, but he was the only one of the group who reacted by leaving.

Strong told lawyers representing the family of George O’Connor, who also lost his life in the blaze, that he could not recall when he had last seen O’Connor on the night of the fire.

Further evidence 

The inquest also heard evidence today from a man who said the front door of the club was locked and the shutters were down when he attempted to leave at around 1.30am. 

John King, who was 20 at the time of the fatal blaze and worked as a fitter, said he saw doorman John Fitzsimons ask another bouncer, later identified to him as Frankie Downes, for a bunch of keys. He said Downes then used a second set of keys to open the front door and let him out.

He told McLoughlin Burke that the bouncer unlocked the door and pulled up the shutters to let him out. “As I was leaving, I could hear them pulling down the shutters and locking the door,” he added. 

He confirmed that Frankie Downes was later identified to him by gardaí. Asked if he knew Fitzsimons, King said he “knew him to see”.

In his deposition to gardaí at the time, which was read into the record today, King said he had five pints of Guinness before he went into the club and three large bottles inside. He said he fell asleep at a table and some time later his friend woke him up. He said he decided to leave the club at 1.30am.

The witness confirmed to Bernard Condon SC, representing a number of families of the deceased, that he had been asleep in the club and his friend woke him up at about 1.15am. “Only for him I wouldn’t be here,” he said.

The witness said he couldn’t be sure who had lifted the shutter when he was going out but said he was sure it was closed again after he left as he had “heard the shutter slamming down”.

The jury at Dublin District Coroner’s Court also heard evidence today from David Heenan.

In his original statement to gardaí, Heenan said he could see the fire on two rear seats and then saw “some sort of liquid dripping down from the ceiling” where the shutters were.

Heenan said he was talking to Caroline McHugh, who was one of those lost in the fire, and another girl at about 1.40am. He said his friend then tapped him on the shoulder and said: “Look up there, there’s a fire”.

He said after he saw the liquid dripping from the ceiling, Caroline asked him if he would walk her home and he said: “I’m getting out of here”.

The girls went to get their coats, Heenan said. He waited for a minute and then went to get his own coat before making his way to the main exit.

He said when he got to the door leading into the passageway the lights went out and the place was “filling up with smoke” and he could not see where he was going. When he got to the doors they were open and he made his way outside.

The witness told McLoughlin Burke that when he and his friend first saw the fire they did not believe it was serious and continued chatting but when they looked back again they could see smoke “rolling over the alcove area”.

Teresa Kenny, who was 17 at the time, told the inquest her sister noticed the smell of smoke and went to tell one of the bouncers about it but was told to “sit back down”.

She also described how people both inside and outside the club tried to open one of the exit doors to no avail. She said she could hear the people inside “banging on the door but nothing happened.”

Sandra Greene, who was 17 years old on the night of 13 February 1981, said she had no problem getting into the Stardust that night.

Greene told Mark Tottenham BL, a member of the coroner’s legal team, that she had received a membership card for the club when she was 15.

The witness said she attended the Stardust with her sister and friends. She said one of the girls went to tell a bouncer she could smell smoke a short time before the fire was noticed.

She said one of the bouncers then pulled up the shutter and they could see the fire on the back seat.

Greene said the fire spread very quickly and “it was like the film Backdraft”.

The witness said she ended up in the cloakroom with “everyone falling on top of each other” and there was “total panic”. She told the inquest that before she got into the lobby “stuff started falling from the ceiling” and she got a small burn on the back of her neck and her wrist. She said this was a “liquidy” substance like “something melting”.

Greene said she had “only one breath left in my body” before she got out.

“I took a big breath, and I literally crawled over people and then someone grabbed me and took me out the stairs,” she said.

John Tighe, who was 17 at the time, said he had been drinking in the Silver Swan that night. He said he and a group of others, including Paula Byrne, who subsequently lost her life in the blaze then queued up and made their way into the Stardust.

He told the inquest the last time he saw Byrne on the night was when they went inside as she and her friends went to sit at a different table.