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Saturday 2 December 2023 Dublin: 2°C
The 48 victims of the Stardust fire.

Stardust inquest hears how teen was trapped in toilets before being 'surrounded by fire'

David Browne told gardaí at the time he could hear “things crashing on top of us”

THE STARDUST INQUEST has heard how a teenager was trapped in the toilets of the club with his girlfriend as the wall “opened up” and seconds later they were surrounded by fire.

David Browne, who occasionally worked as a DJ at the venue, told gardaí at the time that as the fire closed in, they could hear “things crashing on top of us”.

His girlfriend told him they needed to “make a break for it” and they heard water from outside as they struggled along a corridor before collapsing near an exit door.

Browne was in a backstage changing room when the fire was noticed, the jury at the Dublin District Coroner’s Court inquest heard yesterday.

In a statement to gardaí on 15 February 1981, given from his hospital bed in the Mater, Browne, who was 19 at the time, said he was in the changing room after the dance competition had ended when someone came in and said the place was on fire.

He said he went back out to the stage and could see what looked like “drops of plastic” coming from the ceiling.

He went back into the room to get his girlfriend and when they came out again the fire had spread and there was smoke everywhere.

He said someone told them exit three was locked. They went back into the room and a short time later the lights went out. Three other girls joined them in the room, he said.

Browne said they left the room again but had to come back in as they were “running into walls” and “getting nowhere”.

He told gardaí they went into the toilet and “the next thing a crack appeared in the wall and the wall opened up”.

He looked through the wall and saw a corridor and a flame at the end.

“A few seconds later there was fire all around us and I could hear things crashing on top of us,” he said.

“I wanted to stay there because there was air there but my girlfriend said, ‘we’ll have to make a break for it’. Then we heard water from outside, it must have been the firemen’s water.”

Browne said they struggled along through the corridor and when they got around the corner, they saw light and heard ambulances before “the two of us collapsed at the door of exit three”.

He said it was open and they were pulled over a wall onto some grass before they were put in a blue van and brought to the Mater Hospital.

Browne was one of a large number of unavailable witnesses whose statements to gardaí in 1981 and evidence to the Keane Tribunal were read into the record by members of the coroner’s legal team today.

Earlier in direct evidence, a Stardust survivor told how he has blocked out the events of the night of the fatal blaze as a way of dealing with what had happened.

Nicholas Prior became upset during questioning by counsel at the inquest today as he was asked about his memories of the moments after the fire was first noticed.

He told Gemma McLoughlin-Burke BL, a member of the coroner’s legal team, that the night of February 13, 1981 was the first time he had attended the Stardust socially.

Prior said he had previously worked as a lounge boy in the venue in 1979 and that the exit doors were always locked with a chain and padlock.

Asked which exit doors he had seen locked during that time he said “all the exit doors” were locked with chains.

He said on the night of the fire, he had been dancing with friends when he heard “shouting and roaring” and people saying, ‘oh look, there’s a fire’ over near the bar area.

The witness became upset as he remembered hearing “an explosion”.

He said there was a “loud bang” and then the lights went out as he and friends made there way across the floor towards an exit.

He said because he had previously worked in the Stardust, he knew the layout very well.

Prior said he looked towards the main exit and there were “100 people or more” trying to get out that way so they went towards one of the other exits.

As they were making their way across the floor, the ceiling tiles were falling down on fire, Prior told the inquest.

“Next thing I knew we were out through the door, and I looked back and I just seen smoke and darkness,” he told the jury, becoming upset again.

He said he could not remember seeing a bouncer with a fire extinguisher at the bar, which had been recorded in his original statement.

“To be honest a lot of the stuff is a blur,” he said. “I just remember the moments in escaping, basically, you know. I don’t even remember going home that evening.”

He told McLoughlin-Burke that his recollection of leaving was that as he and friends were moving across the floor, there was a big group of people at the exit and then, “the doors just opened and everybody rushed out”.

Bernard Condon SC, representing a number of families of the deceased, asked Prior about testimony he had given to the tribunal of inquiry before Justice Ronan Keane in 1981 when he had said that there were about 30 or 40 people at the door and some of them came back because they couldn’t get out.

“Honestly, I can’t remember,” said Prior. “See the problem is I’ve blocked the whole thing out of my mind you know, that’s how I’ve dealt with it.”

The inquest also heard today how a young man who was outside when the fire was noticed helped bouncer Frankie Downes hold open the front doors of the club before they were both swept down the steps by the force of the panicking crowd emerging from the hallway.

In his testimony to gardaí in 1981, John Reilly, who was 20 at the time, said he had been refused entry to the club because he had previously tried to let friends in through an exit which was locked.

Reilly said he had “a bit of a slanging match” with doorman Frankie Downes when he was refused admission and he told Downes he, “should have been a screw” because he had “a bunch of keys”.

He said he was outside when he heard his sister come into the hallway of the venue and tell the doormen that there was a fire inside.

He said when he heard about the fire, he wanted to run in to get his sister but Downes stopped him and he then helped him to open the doors.

He said as the crowds started to come out, the lights went out and there was “shouting and roaring”.

He said when the crowd finished coming out the doors “swung closed again”. Reilly said they pushed the doors again.

There were about five bodies lying at the door and they pulled these people out, he said.

He told the Keane tribunal that the doors swung closed after he and Frankie Downes got “swept away” to the bottom of the steps by the crowd coming out.

In his statement of 17 February 1981, Noel Quigley said he had previously work as a bouncer at the Stardust.

He said on the night of the fire, he paid in and attempted to let his friend in through exit three but could not do so because there was a padlock and chain on it.

He said he was “surprised” by this because when he had worked in the club the padlock and chains were taken off before patrons came in.

He said he went to exit six and there was also a padlock and chain on this door.

He said he was leaving the club at around 1.30am when a girl came into the hallway near the main door shouting fire.

Quigley said he ran into the disco and shouted at people to get out, but they did not listen and were looking at the fire.

He said he escaped through an exit on his hands and knees and then asked a bouncer for a torch.

He said he went back in at exit three, shouting for anyone who was in there to come out but was overcome with fumes. He said the next thing he remembered was getting the kiss of life outside.

The testimony of Errol Buckley, one of the winners of the dance competition whose brother Jimmy died in the fire, was also read into the record today.

Buckley, who was 18 at the time, said shortly before the fire was noticed, “a good record came on” and he went out to dance with his girlfriend and his sister-in-law, but Jimmy told him he was too tired to dance and remained at the table.

He said he was on the dancefloor when he heard the DJ tell people to keep calm and say a bouncer lift up the partition.

He said he saw flames and the lights then went out. Buckley said he made his way to an exit he knew beside the stage and when he got there it was open.

He said he and his girlfriend and sister-in-law made it out through this door and when they got outside they were looking for Jimmy but could not find him.

Joseph Coughlan told gardaí that on the night of the fatal blaze he saw what he thought were drops of water coming from the ceiling and assumed it was a sprinkler coming on.

He said three weeks prior to the fire, he had been in the club with friends and during the night he could feel “a lot of heat”.

He said it became “unbearably hot” while they were there, and they all passed remarks about it on a few occasions.

Peter McGovern, 19 at the time, was with Coughlan on a Sunday night about three weeks before the fire.

He told gardaí they were sitting at a table in the area that was curtained off on the night of the fire and described “unbearable” heat in the area.

He said the heat was all around and their drinks were lukewarm as a result.

Patron Orla Nolan, who was 24 at the time of the fire, told gardaí that before the dance competition took place, her friend remarked that she smelled smoke.

She said they looked around the table to see if anything was burning.

Nolan said after the competition ended, the smoke got stronger and she looked over and saw it was coming from the partitioned off area.

The inquest continues today.