Carpet tiles and obstructions at exits contributed to loss of life in Stardust, court hears

Fire engineer highlights breaches of bylaws and planning regulations during conversion of food factory into nightclub

There was a “lack of oversight and enforcement” by Dublin Corporation both when the Stardust was being constructed and after when it operated as a nightclub, Dublin coroner’s court has heard.

Brenda Campbell, KC for the families of nine of the 48 people who died as a result of a fire in the north Dublin nightclub in the early hours of February 14th, 1981, was questioning fire engineer Martin Davidson on day 108 of fresh inquests into the deaths, on Thursday.

Mr Davidson, retained by the coroner Dr Myra Cullinane, went into further detail about breaches of bylaws and planning regulations applicable to the Stardust during conversion of a former food factory into the venue in 1976-1977, and its operation from March 1978.

Planning permission had been granted based on drawings indicating internal walls would be skimmed with Tyrolean plaster. During construction the premises was inspected a number of times by Dermot King, senior building surveyor with the corporation.


The inquests heard Mr King noted, during an inspection in early 1981, that carpet tiles were going on the walls, rather than plaster.

“But he didn’t tell anyone about that, taking the view that his role was limited to the bylaws and this was not a bylaw issue, but a fire department issue,” said Ms Campbell. However, she continued, due to resource issues, Dublin Fire Brigade (DFB) had stopped inspections of buildings during construction about a year previously, and Mr King would have known this, she said.

The carpet tiles, which did not comply with the fire-spread rating required by DFB’s chief fire officer as part of planning, played a central role in the speed with which the fire spread, the inquests have heard.

Mr Davidson agreed it could be argued the divergence from the planning permission which the carpet tiles represented was a bylaw issue. “In terms of gaps on this issue on fire department inspections, if the carpet tiles did fall within the realm of the fire department... that was a missed opportunity for a fire department inspection?” asked Ms Campbell.

“I would have thought if the fire brigade had inspected, they would have noticed them,” said Mr Davidson.

Ms Campbell noted Martin Donohoe, Dublin Corporation inspector of “places of public resort”, had raised and escalated issues about obstructed exit doors at least eight times since 1979, including on four occasions in 1980 and in January 1981.

Chief planning officer Charles Kelly wrote to Stardust owner, the late Patrick Butterly on January 23rd, 1981, saying unless he received immediate assurance exits would be immediately available at all times when the public were on the premises, “it will be necessary to institute proceedings against you for contravention of the above bylaws and to raise the matter during the hearing of your application for your annual licence”.

This indicated the corporation had enforcement powers, noted Ms Campbell. “But notwithstanding what we know” about repeated efforts of Mr Donohoe to have his concerns about exits at the Stardust addressed, “this is the first occasion we see any threat of consequences”, she said.

Earlier Mr Davidson outlined how breaches of the 1934 bylaws in relation to fire safety contributed to the disaster. He said the venue’s six exits, if things had worked well, would have been adequate means of escape.

However, the presence of carpet tiles on the walls “rendered the means of escape redundant”.

Once one of the blinds screening the west alcove, where the fire was first seen in the ballroom, was lifted “and smoke spread into the main hall, temperature conditions in the north alcove [across the dance floor] were untenable after 52 seconds”, said the witness.

Having examined photographs of exit doors after the fire, examining how badly burnt or not they were – with burnt doors assumed to have remained closed – he judged “conservatively” that at exit one both leaves “were open from an early stage”.

At exit two, the main exit, side “pass doors” were not open and one of the leaves was closed for about 90 seconds. At exit three, the door had to be kicked repeatedly and a van parked outside the exit would have hindered free exit. At exits four and five, one leaf was closed at each through the fire, and exit six was “fully available”. He referenced furniture stacked at exit four and bottle skips at exit five.

Considering which doors were used most by patrons trying to escape, he said they faced delays of 34-92 seconds, compared with if the doors had been open as required under bylaws.

“Thirty-four seconds may not sound like a lot but... if you can imagine standing [at an exit as the inferno engulfed the venue] and counting to 34, it’s a long time. And imagine that in the context of a nightclub 34 seconds is huge. So, at the end of the day, with a range within 34 seconds to 92 seconds, we believe obstructions at those exits contributed to loss of life on the night of the fire.”

The inquests continue.

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Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times