A former waitress in the Stardust complex has said she was “shocked” to read that a statement she made in 1981 quoted her as saying she did not remember ever seeing exit doors locked and chained during her time there.
Phyllis Cobbe, who worked as a waitress in the Lantern Rooms section of the Stardust, told the jury at the Dublin District Coroner’s Court on Tuesday that there were always chains and locks on the doors.
Her original statement to Gardaí made in 1981 was read into the record by the court registrar, during the inquest into the blaze that swept through the Stardust nightclub in the early hours of February 14th, 1981, killing 48 people.
The last part of this statement read: “I have worked in the Lantern Rooms for the last one and a half years. I know that there are chains on the doors, but the bouncers usually open them before the crowds come in. I don’t remember ever seeing a door locked and chained during my time there.”
The coroner, Dr Myra Cullinane, asked Ms Cobbe if the statement just read was correct according to what she remembered, to which the witness replied that it was not.
“'I know that there are chains on the doors,' which is correct. But then it goes on to say: ‘The bouncers usually open them before the crowds come in. I don’t remember ever seeing a door locked and chained during my time there.’ I do not remember saying that,” Ms Cobbe said.
In response to a question from a member of the coroner’s legal team, Simon Mills SC, Ms Cobbe said: “There were always chains and locks on the doors.”
She said she did not know anything about when or whether the doors were locked or unlocked, nor did she know anything about the policy that was in place at the time about locking or unlocking doors. She also said she could not say anything about the doors being locked or unlocked on the night of the fire.
In response to a question from Des Fahy KC, representing nine of the families of the victims, Ms Cobbe confirmed that her evidence now is that there were always chains and locks on the doors.
“The doors always had chains on them around the bars, or the chains would be hanging with locks on them. I would never know if they were opened or closed,” she said.
“I got this (statement) on Friday, and I was shocked to read that. I was a 16-year-old waitress, how would I know if doors were being locked or unlocked?” Ms Cobbe said.
'Wall of flame'
Another former waitress, Paula Foy, who was 17 at the time of the fire, also gave evidence to Mr Mills that she remembered the chains were always on the doors, but she said she did not know anything about when they were locked or unlocked.
She told Bernard Condon SC, representing a number of the families, that there were locks on the doors and skips containing bottles in front of doors in the Stardust.
The evidence of an unavailable witness, Elizabeth Hunter, was also read into the record.
In her statement to Gardaí made in 1981, Ms Hunter, who was working at the bar between exits four and five in the Stardust, said she saw “a complete wall of flame” near where the curtain was. She said she ran out of the door beside the bar, and she was one of the first people out.
“When I went outside, I was choking with the smoke. I stayed outside for a while looking. After a while, the people that were coming out had their faces blackened,” Ms Hunter said.
“I then heard a number of explosions; I don’t know how many. They were loud. I thought it was gas cylinders exploding. I then became terrified and started to run,” she added.
She said that by the time the fire brigade arrived “there were bodies everywhere”.
“There was definitely nobody coming out through exit number four or six,” Ms Hunter said.
She said there was a bouncer working beside the bar where she was working that night, and he went to exit number five “about eight or nine times” during the night and “checked the chain by pulling it out”.
“These doors were locked together and chained, but it was the first door opened when the fire started. A young boy who collects the glasses passed some remark to me about the bouncer examining the chain so often,” Ms Hunter said.
She said that during the night, the staff threw all their empty bottles into “a big, blue, plastic container” and one of these containers was usually in front of exit number five. She said these containers could be easily moved around as they were on wheels.
The jury also heard the conclusion of the evidence of another unavailable witness, doorman John Fitzsimons.
Evidence given by Ms Fitzsimons at the tribunal before Mr Justice Ronan Keane in 1981 was read into the record by Mark Tottenham BL.
Mr Fitzsimons said that on a number of occasions he complained about a shortage of doormen at the Stardust, and confirmed it was his view there was an inadequate number to ensure the safety of patrons.
He said he was aware of the practice of looping chains and locks around the bars of exit doors so as to give the impression that the door was locked. He accepted that this could have been a very unsafe practice from a safety point of view.
The inquest continues in the Pillar Room of the Rotunda Hospital on Thursday.