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Saturday 2 December 2023 Dublin: 2°C
SASKO LAZAROV VIA ROLLINGNEWS.IE The 48 victims of the Stardust fire
stardust inquest

Firefighter tells Stardust inquest he found group of victims 'huddled together' on the dancefloor

‘They were caught out by the speed of events,’ Dermot Dowdall told the inquest.

THE FIRST EMERGENCY responder on the scene of the fatal Stardust blaze has told how he found a group of victims “huddled together” in a circle on the dancefloor as he searched the building in the aftermath of the fire.  

“They were caught out by the speed of events,” Dermot Dowdall told the inquest into the fire which claimed the lives of 48 young people in the early hours of 14 February, 1981. 

“They grabbed each other, got their heads down and didn’t know much more after that.” 

Mr Dowdall also told the jury at Dublin District Coroner’s that John Fitzsimons, a fireman who was working as a doorman in the club that night, was one of the first to contact the station about the blaze. 

The inquest heard the first call about the fire was taken at 1.43am. 

The jury has previously heard evidence from numerous witnesses who said the fire was first noticed inside the complex at around 1.40am. 

The witness said Mr Fitzsimons immediately alerted him to the seriousness of the fire and told him to escalate the call as lives were at risk and as many as 200 people could be lost. 

Asked by counsel at the inquest about the significance of receiving a call from someone inside the building who was a trained firefighter, Mr Dowdall said it made “an enormous difference”.  

 “We knew very, very early on that there was going to be a lot of losses,” Mr Dowdall told Patricia Dillon SC, representing Dublin City Council. 

“We knew the risk of losing a lot of people was very, very high and the response we gave to that was as high as it could be on the night.” 

Mr Dowdall, who was 26 at the time, told the inquest that he had worked as a firefighter since 1976 and was on duty in Tara Street on the night of the fatal blaze. 

He told Gemma McLoughlin-Burke BL, a member of the coroner’s legal team, that he had experience dealing with large fires before the Stardust but “not on that scale”.  

“I had attended district calls before but that was a brigade call and no one would have experienced that before,” he said.  

Ms McLoughlin-Burke had earlier explained to the jury that a “district call” indicates a serious fire with at least two appliances needed and lives at risk while a “brigade call” denotes a serious call of major proportions requiring all of the resources of the brigade mobilised. 

Mr Dowdall said he had entered the control room and was aware of a discussion between other fire officers about two calls which had come in about a fire in the vicinity of the Stardust. 

He said as this discussion was taking place, the phone rang and he answered the call from Mr Fitzsimons. “He said: ‘look we could lose up to 200 people here tonight’.” 

Mr Dowdall said he relayed the seriousness of the situation to his superior who indicated that he should leave for the Stardust immediately and he and a colleague made their way to the scene in an ambulance.  

“We were fully aware of what we were going to,” he said. “We had no illusions”. 

The inquest heard Mr Dowdall arrived at the scene at approximately 1.49am where he and his colleague were directed to take eight girls – four with severe burns – and one boy, to St James Hospital. 

He said the fire “had been very intense and very fast” and “had gone through the roof” and “largely vented itself” by the time they arrived on the scene. 

The rescues that were going on were mostly focused on the toilets, he added. 

Before Mr Dowdall’s evidence today, Coroner Dr Myra Cullinane reiterated that much of the evidence from the emergency responders who attended the scene will be “distressing and graphic”. 

Mr Dowdall became emotional as he recounted the large number of injured people onsite and told how there was skin on the window of the ambulance as they conveyed people to hospital. 

He said when he returned to the site, he assisted in the search for bodies. 

“It was gruesome work,” he said. “We brought the bodies outside, lined them up in a long line. Started to see what prospect there was of identifying them.” 

In some instances, there were identifying markers like earrings but in other cases it was difficult to tell whether they were male or female, he said. 

The senior officer was directing the scene at that stage, Mr Dowdall said, and he had arranged a “shoulder to shoulder search” through the whole premises.  

Mr Dowdall said he entered through exit six and saw badly burned bodies about midway up the seating area in the north alcove. 

He also witnessed a large number of bodies on the floor area. 

The witness said he took two of these bodies to the city morgue – one of whom was Thelma Frazer. 

He said he knew it was her because of her earrings. Dr Cullinane told the inquest the other victim had been Michael Griffiths. 

“We knew there was no one to be rescued at that stage,” he said, adding there wasn’t any firefighting left to be done as there were only small “pockets of fire” in certain areas that weren’t a threat.  

Mr Dowdall said during his search, he came across a group of people who were fused together.  

In response to a question from the coroner, Mr Dowdall confirmed that at that time Dublin Fire Brigade comprised ambulances as well as fire tenders.  

The witness told Sean Guerin SC, representing a number of families of the deceased, that when he took the call from Mr Fitzsimons there was “chaos” in the background. 

Mr Dowdall said the fire was already going “through the roof” by the time he and a colleague arrived, and he believed most of the victims would already have been deceased by then. 

He said as a result, the rescues that were going on were focused mainly on the toilets in the club. 

It was around 3am when he returned to the site having brought injured patrons to hospital, he told counsel. 

Asked what the state of the fire was at that stage, Mr Dowdall said: “I would regard the fire as being out at that stage.” 

He said it had “reached its peak”, largely speaking, before then. 

He said there was still heat and smoke and it was still “perfectly possible to get burned” but from a technical point of view “the real fire was gone”. 

“The intensity of the fire was such that it had done all that damage in five minutes.” 

Mr Dowdall said he entered the building and found a couple of people midway up the seating area in the North Alcove. 

He said he also found “a group of people in a kind of huddle” who were sitting in a circle on the dance floor. 

He said they were “huddled together” and as a result they were “all welded together”. 

“They were caught out by the speed of events,” he said. 

“They grabbed each other, got their heads down and didn’t know much more after that,” he said. 

Describing his first impression of the fire as he made his way in the ambulance towards the scene, Mr Dowdall said the smoke was “rising very fast” and “when we came within a mile of it you could see the glow of it”. 

He said when they arrived on the scene it was “absolutely mayhem” with “people everywhere”. 

Asked by Ms Dillon what the significance of the fire having vented through the roof would have been, Mr Dowdall said the fact that the roof was “taken out so quickly” was an indication of “the level of heat” involved. 

“It was very short lived and very very intense,” he said. “Normally, on a building of that size you would expect to be fighting a fire for four or five hours. 

“You could be there all night… As I say the damage had already been done…very little happened to degrade the situation after that.” 

However, he said the rescue work was still “very real” as people could be lost to the smoke. 

“There’s products in the smoke that will take people down very quickly…so it’s still an emergency.” 

Evidence was also heard today from Patrick Hobbs, who was the acting Station Officer on the night. 

The inquest heard he found five people “cuddled together” in the gents toilets and another man in a collapsed condition having been overcome by the smoke. 

He said he and other firefighters present succeeded in bringing all of those people out to safety.  

The court heard Mr Hobbs found two dead bodies close to each other in the building. He could not tell if they were male or female. 

He said he found several more bodies at the seating area and these people were “completely unrecognisable”. 

Mr Hobbs told Ms McLoughlin-Burke that he knew before he attended the fire that it was serious as another officer came from the control room and told him it was “something big” and “there were people trapped”. 

He said when they initially got to the scene, “there was no chance of search and rescue because it was an inferno”. 

He said he went over and spoke to people trapped in toilets but “it was impossible” to do anything to help because “there were steel bars and plates welded to it”.  

He and other firemen eventually managed to enter through the main entrance, he said, and found five or six people in the toilets who were “hugely shocked and in an awful state”. 

He confirmed to Mr Guerin that the only people capable of being rescued were those who had managed to get shelter in the toilets or other places like that and that the conditions on the main floor area were incompatible with life. 

“They couldn’t survive it,” he said.