May 2nd 2023, 7:14 PM
A STARDUST SURVIVOR has given an emotional account of the trauma those present endured on the night, describing how “we saw terrible, terrible things that nobody should ever see” with young people dying “right in front of us”.
In a moving pen portrait of her friend Susan Morgan (19), who died in the fire, Yvonne Graham told the Stardust inquest how she and Susie were part of a group of girls who moved from Derry to Dublin to work in the Nazareth House care home on the Malahide Road.
She said their lives in the capital were a “massive contrast” to Derry as they left a place in conflict and arrived in a city “buzzing with life and freedom”.
However, she said that all changed on the night of 13 February 1981 when “our carefree life in Dublin was suddenly, brutally, cut short”.
Ms Graham told how on the day after the fire, she and a companion went around the hospitals eventually ending up in the morgue where she recognised Susan’s clothes.
“There was one shoe and the shirt she had been wearing — a shirt she had borrowed for the night from one of us — and her signet ring. I was in bits,” she told the Coroner’s Court today.
Ms Graham was providing the portrait of Susan as part of the inquest taking place at the Pillar Room in the Rotunda Hospital into the tragedy that occurred at the Stardust Ballroom in Artane in the early hours of 14 February 1981.
The inquest into the fire, which claimed the lives of 48 young people, has now entered its second week.
Ms Graham said Susie, as she was known, was raised by her granny and the two women “doted on each other”.
She said when she and Susie moved to Dublin as part of a large group of girls, they lived in the Nazareth House care home where they worked and shared accommodation.
Susie loved Dublin and the “freedom and possibility” it represented, Ms Graham said.
“She loved to feel the exciting atmosphere and the buzz of the city when we stepped off the bus onto the footpath in O’Connell Street,” Ms Graham said, adding that Susie didn’t just love Dublin, she had also fallen in love with victim Paul Wade.
“We were having a ball. I don’t think we stayed in even for one night,” she said.
Ms Graham became emotional as she told how: “On the night of the Stardust fire, we saw terrible, terrible, things that nobody should ever see. We were only young, and we saw other young people die right in front of us.”
“I was taken to the Mater Hospital. The place was rammed. I remember everyone around me with big, black, burnt faces.”
Ms Graham said she didn’t know how she got home to Nazareth House the next day and told how the nuns gave her whiskey in tea “for shock” before she left again to find Susie in the morgue, recognised her by one shoe and a borrowed shirt.
She said that in the weeks following the fire: “There was blame. In the grief and loss, us girls were blamed for Susie being killed in the fire. We were blamed for taking her away from her home in Derry, for taking her away into danger.”
Their carefree life in Dublin was suddenly, brutally, cut short, she said, and their families wanted them back in Derry.
“You go from being young, free, and single, and then the whole lot has just collapsed down on top of you. We never spoke about the trauma. We blocked it out.”
However, Ms Graham told how it would resurface at night and how: “In nightmares, I saw burnt bodies coming up the bed at me. I had to take sedatives. I was only 18 and I was just sitting staring into space.”
She said the effects of the fire have carried on through time and she is obsessive about pulling out plugs in the house, making sure there can’t be an electrical fire.
She said the trauma of the Stardust fire also has “a snowball effect, gathering up other lives that weren’t directly involved in it” and told how it has affected the lives of her children, even though they weren’t born at the time.
“They were never allowed a chip pan in the house. I stocked up on lots of microwaveable chips – anything and everything to make sure there won’t be a fire,” she said.
“Everywhere I go, I’m always checking fire exits. The anxiety never leaves you.”
She said St Valentine’s Day is her youngest grandchild’s birthday but is also “a terrible time too”. She said that when the day comes around, instead of celebrating life, “we are plunged into terrible memories. Normality has been taken away”.
Ms Dunne said she hopes the new inquests will bring justice for people who have been waiting for so long.
“Susie was so young. She had her whole life in front of her. All of that – all the possibilities in the life ahead of her – were taken away from her in the Stardust fire. We should not have had to wait so long for justice,” she concluded.
‘Long overdue answers’
The family of a teenage girl who died in the Stardust fire have also said they hope the new inquest will provide “long overdue answers” to what happened that night.
Josephine Glen’s sisters told how they initially thought she was going to be okay and were “elated” because she had very few burns on her body.
However, they were heartbroken when the 16-year-old died five days after the fire when her life support machine was turned off.
Her sisters Sheena and Alison today told how they sat with their sister, who they called Jo, every day, talking to her and “praying that she would come back to us”.
“My aunt remembers lying in the bed beside my mam each night while my mam cried and prayed and pleaded with God not to take her from us,” Sheena said.
“Sadly, this was not to be, and the life support machine was turned off on 19 February 1981, when they told our mother that there was nothing else they could do for Jo. We believe this was due to the amount of toxic smoke she had inhaled which shut down all of her vital organs after starving them of oxygen.”
Sheena told how Jo was a “happy, kind, loving and sociable person” with lots of friends, some of whom she was out with that night.
She said their brother, William, remembers Jo as their mother’s “right hand”, always preparing the dinner if she was home first and being “a second mam to us all, always smiling and happy”.
The inquest heard Jo went to work at 14 years old, as soon as she left school and contributed the majority of her wages to the household, to help their mother, who was a single parent of four children.
Alison told the Coroner’s Court she was a year younger than Jo and they grew up “more like twins than sisters”.
She remembered Jo as a “beautiful girl”, who was kind, loving, thoughtful and fun to be with.
As they got a bit older, they went dancing together to the local teen disco and were best friends as well as sisters, Alison said.
“Jo always looked out for me in different ways, paying for me to go different places before I was working myself.”
Alison told how, 40 years on, she still feels guilty about the events of 13 February 1981.
She said Jo was quiet and gentle and hated any sort of confrontation, “so I always stood up for her and looked out for her”.
“I wasn’t there on the night of the Stardust and still live with the guilt of not being there for her that night,” she said, adding: “Love you and miss you Jo”.
Sheena said the day after the fire was spent “going from hospital to hospital, looking for Jo” and told how their brother William, who was 17 at the time, had to go through each hospital, seeing all the survivors, some of whom were very badly burnt.
It was later that evening that a family friend who worked at Jervis Street said there was a girl there matching Jo’s description.
“My brother went to identify Jo and when we saw her with very few burns on her body, we were elated,” Sheena said. “We thought that she was going to be okay. However, Jo was on a life support machine for five days and never regained consciousness.”
She said all of their lives changed following the Stardust fire, their mother “understandably fell apart” and “things at home were never the same again”.
“All of the laughter and happiness in our lives were replaced with tears and sadness”.
Their mother, who passed away six years ago, had problems with her heart after Jo died and the family believe this was because her heart was broken, Sheena said.
“Not a day goes by that we don’t think about Jo and wonder what life would have been like if she hadn’t been taken from our family over 40 years ago. We still miss her every day and will continue to miss her for the rest of our lives,” she said.
“Jo’s life was cruelly cut short as a direct result of the Stardust fire and forty years on, we still have no answers as to how or why the fire broke out that night. We hope and pray that this inquest will give us those long overdue answers that should have been a priority for the Irish government 40 years ago so our sister and our mother can finally rest in peace.”
‘The night that stole my childhood’
A brother outlined how every time he sees the Stardust memorial in Coolock of a young man and woman dancing, he pictures his sister and her boyfriend who both perished in the blaze.
Thelma Frazer was 20 when she died alongside her boyfriend Michael Farrell, who 26.
Paying tribute to his sister at the inquest today, Thelma’s brother Maurice said the family “lost its soul that night”.
He said his parents were also victims of “that place in Artane” as they both died within ten years of the Stardust, both aged 56, leaving a young family behind.
Thelma’s sister Barbara Collins, who was just six at the time, said the fire had stolen not just her only sister but also her childhood.
“That was the night that stole my sister…That was the night that stole my childhood,” she said.
Barbara, Maurice and their brother Eric paid tribute to Thelma today providing pen portraits for their sister.
Thelma was the eldest of seven boys and two girls. Just 20 at the time of the fire, she had a “beautiful wide radiant smile, with stunning red short hair,” Barbara told the Coroner’s Court.
She said her sister was “gentle and kind” and “would do anything for anyone”.
Barbara told how her big sister was 14 years older than her and was “like a mother to me”, while their mother cared for their brother Robert, who had been born prematurely and suffered a lot of complications in his early years as a result.
Barbara said she loved her big sister, especially as they were the only girls in a house full of boys.
The family home was always bustling, with something going on, she said, and with eleven people sharing three bedrooms “it was tight but we made it work”.
Barbara told how she shared the box room with Thelma, sleeping top to tail in a single bed.
“I remember her skin on her feet always scratched me because it was so rough, I would give out to her, but she would just end up tickling me,” she recalled.
“What I really remember is the fun in the house, I’m sure the neighbours hated the noise. It wasn’t bad noise; it was always laughter and singing,” said Barbara.
A few months before Thelma was killed, she won some money and went straight out and bought some presents for the younger children.
Barbara said both she and her brother Eric still have those presents today, which they cherish.
“Mine was a little Fisher Price record player,’ she said, adding Thelma was always thinking of other people before herself.
Friday nights were Thelma’s nights for going out and Barbara told how she would help her sister get ready before her boyfriend Michael would pick her up. “He was such a lovely guy, he was just like one of my brothers,” she said.
She described Friday, 13 February 1981 as “the night that changed our lives forever”.
Barbara told how she watched “with admiration” while Thelma got her make-up and her hair ready and picked out her clothes.
“Me dreaming of the day I could do the same and go dancing with her. She then hugged me, gave me a kiss and tucked me into bed before heading off with Michael for the St Valentine’s night disco,” Barbara said.
“That was the last time I saw my big sister.”
The next morning, she remembers waking up to her dad shaking her and shouting “Where is Thelma, where is Thelma”.
“That was the night that stole my sister. That was the night that stole my happy family. That was the night that stole my childhood, she said. “A mother afraid to hug, a mother afraid to love, in fear of losing another child.”
Barbara told how growing up, neighbours and family members would call her Thelma by mistake and said this still happens to this day.
She said she knows Thelma is watching over her but would give anything for “her not to have gone that night, to have stayed at home with me, scratchy feet and all”.
Thelma’s brother Maurice, meanwhile, said the family “lost its soul that night”.
He told the inquest Thelma was an excellent student who went on to study Business and Communications at Ballsbridge Business College, where she excelled.
He said she loved her job and was sure she would have made a career out of Labour relations.
She had lots of friends, Maurice said, and loved sports, whether it was running, playing football or going to away trips to see Shelbourne FC play.
He revealed how all three older siblings were working and earning a decent wage and said their home was a “joyous place to be” as the family were finally able to clear the mortgage.
He described Thelma’s boyfriend Michael, who also died in the fire, as “the love of her life” and said all of the family had “such good times with these two doting redheads”.
He said that on the night of the fire, the “unimaginable” happened and the family were woken by their Dad shouting: “there is a fire at the Stardust”.
Maurice said his father cycled around all the major Dublin hospitals in the hope that his daughter would be found. He was photographed outside the Mater hospital “with a two thousand yard stare” while the photographer was focusing on the Taoiseach Charles Haughey and a Garda in deep conversation.
He said he often wonders what was going through his father’s mind as that “snapshot in time” was taken.
Maurice said the family “searched frantically” for hours but as their “hopes slowly dwindled” they came to the realisation that they might never see Thelma again.
“Our home went from a happy home full of life to just a house.”
Their mother was heavily sedated, he said, while they became concerned when their father went missing for a few hours only to be brought home by a passing Garda who had “found Dad sitting on a bench at Sandymount Strand crying his eyes out”.
Maurice said two days later they got the call to go to Store Street to identify Thelma and said as they went in “the sobbing from families was interrupted by cries of anguish and anger”.
“We were given a brown envelope with a few pieces of melted jewellery and the remains of a digital watch which my older brother Arthur identified as Thelma’s,” Maurice said.
“Our family lost its soul that night, as we were consumed by heart-wrenching sobs and a sense of numbness that lingered in our minds forever. Impossible to erase even today.”
He said both their Mam and Dad were truly heartbroken by what happened and both passed away within ten years of the Stardust, both at the young of age of 56, leaving a young family behind.
“Mam and Dad were also victims of that place in Artane,” he said.
“When I see the Stardust memorial in Coolock, with the young man and the young woman dancing, I picture them as being Thelma and Michael,” he added.
He said his father, Arthur Senior, had many questions and Maurice said he hopes that his late father’s concerns, through this inquest, can be laid to rest with him, and that “we can finally have truth and justice for our own and all of the families”.
Thelma’s brother Eric, who was just five when his sister died, paid tribute to her in a poem, which included the lines:
“Until we are linked together in heaven, my heart will remain broken.
We can never move on, as we’ve never had answers.
We can never shed light on what happened to all the midnight Stardust dancers.”