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Newfoundland's Furious Fire By Sabotage
The Knights Of Columbus Hostel Disaster of 1942

by Frank RASKY

 

 

A barn dance in a St. John's servicemen's centre ended with 99 revelers roasted alive, 109 scorched.

    "Hurrah for our own native isle, Newfoundland.
    Not a stranger shall hold one inch of its strand.
    Her face turns to Britain, her back to the Gulf.
    Come near at your peril, Canadian Wolf!

    Cheap tea and molasses they say will give,
    All taxes take off that the poor man may live;
    Cheap nails and cheap lumber our coffins to make,
    And homespun to mend our old clothes when they break.

    Would you barter the right that your fathers have won,
    Your freedom transmitted from father to son?
    For a few thousand dollars of Canadian gold,
    Don't let it be said that your birthright was sold!"

    - Newfoundland's "Anti-Confederation War Ballad" -

In wartime St. John's, Newfoundland, that Saturday night, it was perfect weather for a saboteur's fire. It was a raw and bone-chilling fourteen degrees above zero on Dec. 12th, 1942. The hilly streets were sheathed in ice, and every frosted window in every clapboard shanty was veiled for the blackout against the Nazi U-boats. Not a soul was stirring outside as the fog, dirty as a duck puddle and reeking of codfish from the Grand Bankss, threw a tarry blanket around the whole poor, prideful, stubborn, screech-drinking, squid-jigging, vowel-twanging old pirate of a port town.

By eleven o'clock, most of the sixty thousand townspeople were snug in the parlors of their unpainted homes, tuned in to radio station VOCM to hear Biddy O'TOOLE sing that laughing Irish folk ballad, "I Met Her In The Garden Where The Praties Grow". She was one of Uncle Tim's Barn Dance Troupe, whose weekly Saturday night show was being broadcast from the stage of the Knights Of Columbus Hostel. it was the chief amusement for servicemen stationed in the heart of North America's most ancient capital city, in the British Empire's most ancient colony.

Jammed in the hostel's downstairs auditorium for the barn dance show were four hundred spectators, mostly men of the Canadian and American armed forces and their "Newfy" girlfriends. One hundred other revelers in uniform were jitterbugging to the tom-tom beat of a jukebox in the adjoining canteen, or playing Ping-Pong in a recreation room festooned with scarlet Christmas bunting, or thinking of bunking for the night in the upstairs dormitories of the two-storey, spruce and fir firetrap, colored a rusty cocoa brown, high on Harvey Road hill.

After Biddy O'TOOLE had taken her bow, a Canadian soldier named Eddy ADAMS, garbed in chaps, boots, checkered shirt and ten gallon Stetson, stepped before the microphone. He said "Howdy" to the Western fans among the cheering merrymakers, and began plunking a tune on his guitar, and started to yodel "The Moonlight Trail".

It proved to be a short trail. Halfway through his song, listeners at home heard a woman's scream cut the gaiety like a dagger.

"Fire!" she shrilled. "Fire!, Fire!"

No sooner had her thin scream faded when the master of ceremonies, Joe MURPHY, dressed in hillbilly overalls, clutched at the microphone. "Please, folks, no panic," he yelled above the hubbub. To the orchestra he hollered, "For God's sake, boys, keep playing!"

Listeners at home were aghast to hear a series of muffled explosions. Then the radio went dead.

Simultaneously, all the lights in the hostel flickered off. As tongues of orange flame licked across the darkness, a stampede of humans clawed towards the four exits that were barred and locked against the blackout, and the trapped victims bit and they scratched and they hammered and prayed for life.

Within five minutes, anybody still left in the flimsy building was a roasted corpse. Ninety-nine persons died in this house of merriment so suddenly transmitted into a funeral pyre. One-hundred and nine revelers writhed in agony from their burning hair and limbs. Though the St. John's Central Fire Station was a mere 200 yards away, the $100,000 servicemen's centre was gobbled up by flames until it was nothing more than a gaunt skeleton of white-hot ashes.

This barn dance was the swiftest and deadliest indoor fire in the annuals of Canadian disasters. It was even more spectacular than Montreal's Laurier Palace Movie Theatre fire of Jan. 9th, 1927, when 76 children suffocated to death while trying to escape up the narrow theatre aisles in panic. It was also our most insidious fire, since it was almost certainly lit by an enemy agent, who, cunningly enough, used rolls of toilet paper as his torch. Indeed, it was so intrigue-ridden that St. John's literary District Fire Chief P. J. WAKEHAM, who "fought the Knights Of Columbus inferno from beginning to end", wrote a 15,000-word novel based on the fire, "The Flaming Holocaust".

St. John's at the time was a hotbed of intrigue. The port city was a rallying point for European-bound Allied convoys; and so it was swollen with servicemen and infested with enemy agents of all stripes. The Americans had taken a 99-year lease on Fort Pepperrell, a 1,600-acre military Gibralter, overlooking Quidi Vidi Lake. The Canadians had set up military bases at Torbay and Gander. The Newfoundlanders, who stubbornly were not to confederate with Canada until seven years later in 1949, had their own Newfoundland Militia billeted at Shamrock Field.

Squabbling among all three Allied groups was often sharp and ferocious. The Newfoundlanders, proud of their tradition of being a separate British colony for 450 years, regarded the newcomers as "foreigners". They resented the smart-alecky Americans who called them "goofy Newfies", and their island "a piece of rock entirely surrounded by fog". (A current bon mot ran, "The purity of the air of Newfoundland is without doubt due to the fact that the people of the outports never open their windows.") They resented the moneyed Canadians and reminded the interlopers that Newfoundland had overwhelmingly voted against joining Canada as a province as far back as 1869. Above all, the Newfoundlanders fought bitterly with both Americans and Canadians, who seduced their daughters and stole their wives.

On their part, the Canadians and Americans resented the exorbitant prices charged them by the rich merchants of Water Street. This St. John's "fishocracy" had always ruled the 320-mile-long island with an exploiting fist. For cheap labor, according to the historian, Dr. C. R. FAY, the merchants used to ship in thousands of illiterate immigrants from Ireland: "Making a trade of importing paupers in the spring as a substitute for ballast". As long ago as 1818, a disenchanted settler named STEWART had written, "All the people who have made their fortunes in the trade of our Island have risen from low situations in the fishery. They were all at one time either codfish planters or boat-keepers. Haven risen 'from the cod-hook', they make severe masters."

The impoverished Newfoundlanders - though paid six cents a week dole during the 1930's Depression, still pulling their carts with oxen, and ridden with tuberculosis from lack of fresh fruit and vegetables - continued to prefer their Water Street masters and their illusion of colonial independence to union with the "foreigners". "We'll rant and we'll rave like true Newfoundlanders," began one of their chauvinistic folk songs. And their most fanatical ballad warned defiantly, "Come near at your peril, Canadian Wolf!".

All this friction, of course, was catnip to enemy agents. As a result of their secret information, a Nazi U-boat was able to surface right off Belle Isle and sink two British freighters loaded with Newfoundland iron ore. Anot her German submarine, even more audacious, torpedoed the gates guarding the very entrance of St. John's Harbor, and sneaked off in the night. Inevitably, the saboteurs began considering ways of setting fire to the tinderbox of a port town, over-crowded with Allied servicemen. In the phrase of the historian, Dr. C. R. FAY, "St. John's has two claims to distinction: it is the oldest town in North America, and it has been burnt more often than any other capital city in the world."

The fires of the past, though, devoured the whole town's wooden shanties rather than destroying human life. In the Great Fire of 1846, a glue pot boiled over in a George Street cabinet makers shop; then a gale wind skipped the flames across vats of seal oil throughout Water Street and Duckworth Street. By nightfall, burning seal oil covered even the water in the harbor, and the town was no more than a forest of crumpled chimneys. Though 12,000 people were left homeless, reported a contemporary insurance salesman, J. J. BROOMFIELD, "the merchants all appear in good spirits and have already begun erecting temporary buildings of wood to house the fish."

The Great Fire of 1892 started in the barn of a merchant named Timothy O'BRIEN, a mile northwest of the wharfs. One of O'BRIEN's drivers, Timothy FITZPATRICK, tumbled in the barn with a lighted pipe in his mouth. The ashes ignited the hay, and another powerful gale swept the flames raging for 16 hours. Two-thirds of the city was ravaged: 11,000 were left homeless; and it caused $20 million damage, including the melted gold coins that the merchants had hoarded in their cellars. "Firemen were compelled to work without water," reported one observer laconically, "as the pipes were under repair, and the supply had not been restored."

But the saboteur, on that December Saturday night in 1942, had his eye on mass murder; not on mass gutting of buildings. He couldn't have picked a better incendiary bomb than the Knights of Columbus Hostel. The L-shaped wall-board building, faced with bogus brick and set on one of the loftiest points in the centre of town, had been erected just 12 months before as a servicemen's "home away from home". It was a tragi-comic compound of errors.

First of all, the worthy builders, the Knights of Columbus Canadian Army Huts, broke the law by not bothering to submit any plans or specifications to St. John's town council. In fact, the red-faced city officials couldn't produce a blueprint at the official inquiry later conducted by the Supreme Court Justice, Sir Brian DUNFIELD. Secondly, the builders broke the law by putting in plyboard-covered screen doors that opened inward instead of outward. These blackout barriers were bolstered by second exit doors, whose mortice locks were shut tight, like a reinforced rat trap.

Thirdly, the builders broke the law by obstructing the passageway from the auditorium to the front street. People wanting to make their way to the front entrance on Harvey Road had to cross a restaurant canteen packed with loose tables and chairs.

Finally, the builders fumbled by not installing a separate emergency lighting system. The hostel auditorium did have lights at the emergency exits. But they worked from the same panel as the auditorium lights - in the rear movie projection booth. When flames raced through the booth, melting fuses in the panel, all the lights went off together, and the crowd groped toward the exits like blind men in an inky bedlam.

The saboteur must have known about these weaknesses in the servicemen's recreation centre. He used this knowledge ingeniously to touch off what Sir Brian DUNFIELD now calls "a classic case of the kind of flash fire which is built around a low-grade gas explosion. That, in my view, accounted for the great rapidity of the fire. It certainly looks as if an enemy agent was about."

About 10:30 that night, the enemy agent lit a match to a trail of toilet paper piled in a storage cupboard on the second storey. The plyboard cupboard adjoined one of the dormitories, and was built within the loft over the downstairs auditorium. Cardboard cartons of toilet paper and paper wiping towels were stored in the cupboard, piled one upon another, and one package had been intentionally broken open.

The burning toilet paper formed a sort of torch. It swiftly burned through the 7/8-inch wallboard above it. Then it threw its flames along the vast interior of the lofts, licking up among the sun-dried and resinous rafter timbers, feeding on the tarred felt roof trusses, and consuming all the oxygen. The plumes of bluish flames burned slowly that way over the auditorium for at least half an hour, producing a huge ovenful of carbon monoxide gas that is clear, colorless, without taste or smell, but lethally poisonous.

"By the time the fire made its first public appearance at 11:10 p.m.," Sir Brian DUNFIELD later deduced, "all the extensive lofts of the building, tight and unventilated as they were, had become a gas-holder filled with inflammable and explosive gases - an immense bomb over the heads of the people in the building and unknown to them."

The people, unknowingly in their innocence, had other things on their mind. Girls were on the mind of two RCAF sergeants from Toronto, who had a Saturday night pass from the barracks at Torbay, eight miles from St. John's, and were ready for pickup.

One was Sgt. Max ("Goldy") GOLDSTEIN, a 23-year-old physical training instructor, with intense brown eyes, a narrow black mustache, and a powerful 44-inch chest spread. Back in Toronto, he had won national weight-lifting championships for the Young Men's Hebrew Association. He was particularly proud of being able to lift a 280-pound barbell in a "clean and jerk" movement, and of hoisting a 200-pound man aloft with one hand. As a body-building fresh air enthusiast, keenly sensitive to smells, he didn't smoke or drink, but was not averse to female company. Just a few days before, he had written his father, Samuel GOLDSTEIN, owner of a Toronto slipper and shoe factory. "I plan to attend a dance Saturday night, Pop, and maybe meet some nice girls."

His buddy, Sgt. Bill COLLIS, was an easygoing fellow of 25, also with black hair, black mustache, and liquid brown eyes. Before enlisting, he had been a professional musician, playing the saxophone and clarinet with Hal Hartley's Band in Montreal and Stan Williams & His Blue Marines out of Cobourg, Ont. His father, David COLLIS, owner of a furniture store in Oshawa, Ont., knew that Bill had been corresponding with a girl back home. "But after all, I'm not serious now about marriage," his son had written, "because you never know what will happen in war."

At 10 p.m., the two Air Force sergeants bundled up in their blue greatcoats, black leather gloves, goloshes and parkas, trudged up icy Le Merchant Road toward the "K. and C. Hut." They passed shacks, squat and shuttered on the climbing hills, and green with the patina of time and sea erosion. Occasionally, they dodged an Army truck, its headlights painted black, except for a tiny permissible slit of dim yellow light.

Overhead, planes buzzed angrily, as though trying to pierce a hole through the obdurate fog Banks. The mist crawled in from all the outlandishly-named Newfoundland outports, which from overhead, looked like a wrinkled elephant's hide, ringed by burnished mountains of the moon. The fog crept out of Bumble Bee Bight, Nick's Nose and Pick Eyes, swooping over Hole In The Wall, God Almighty Cove, and Horse Chops, weaving like a drunken sailor through Come By Chance, Seldom Come By and Blow Me Down, rolling across Ha Ha Bay, Witless Bay and Leading Tickles, skirting Famish Gut, Great Pinchgut and Maggoty Point, and wrapping its gray wraith around Heart's Content, Heart's Delight and Heart's Desire.

The two Torontonians cursed the near zero cold, and they called it the forsaken land that God gave to Cain, and they agreed that the narrows looked as if it had been used to wring out all the dirty laundry in St. John's.

"Ah, well," said Max GOLDSTEIN philosophically. "You know what they say of this town's suddenly changing temperature: 'If you don't like our weather this moment, come back in ten minutes'." And Bill COLLIS sighed, "Whatever you say about the bootleggers here, who'll roll you for a dime when they peddle their iodine-tasting screech, you can't beat the outport islanders for warm hospitality. It's 'Come in, me boyo, for a cup o' tea by the fireplace, or a hot codfish tongue, or a whale Arctic steak with seal flipper pie'."

The two climbed up the treacherously snowy four front steps of the Knights Of Columbus Hostel. They checked their hats and coats, and admired the Christmas streamers strung from the ceiling of the canteen, and ordered coffee and doughnuts for five cents. Then they inspected the "gash" - the available Army and Air force girls. GOLDSTEIN decided to decline on the doughnuts, "because I've got to watch my weight". But he was impressed with a few beautiful girls he spotted, regrettably attached already to males. COLLIS thought the female pickings that night were so-so.

GOLDSTEIN had a dance with an Air Force girl, and COLLIS played a game of checkers, and then both decided to play a game of Ping-Pong. But no Ping-Pong balls were available, and COLLIS didn't feel like asking the sailors at the next table for a loan of a ball. "I'm too tired to make battle with the Navy tonight," he told GOLDSTEIN. "Let's forget it."

They paused for a moment, debating whether to join the crowd seated in the auditorium on collapsible steel chairs, and waiting for the barn dance show to begin. GOLDSTEIN's passion for fresh air saved them both.

"It's too hot and sticky in there." GOLDSTEIN said. "Let's blow."

As they put on their coats to leave, COLLIS also noticed the smoky humid atmosphere. "Look at the plywood blackout shutters they've got stuck against the windows," he observed. "Isn't that a hell of a thing, Goldy? You'd think they'd use dark window blinds instead, and let a little of God's air inside this sweatbox."

No sooner had they stepped outside when they bumped into two comely girls they had met before. GOLDSTEIN took the blonde by the arm and strolled back towards the "sweatbox", calling over his shoulder, "See you later, Bill, in the K. Of C. Hut." "Sure thing, Goldy," said COLLIS, as he stayed behind to talk to his brunette charmer. "It looks as though we'll have a hot time in the old town tonight after all."

An old shirt was preying on the mind of Private Reginald J. HOLWELL, a very youthful 19-year-old, who had joined the Newfoundland Militia. Frugality had been dinned into his head when he was brought up at Herring Neck, a small fishing settlement on the northeast coast of Newfoundland. He had just finished high school the year before at St. John's, and though he looked so young, with his light brown hair and brown eyes and his slender 5-feet-8, the Newfoundland Militia had accepted him. When Shamrock Field was taxed to capacity, they had billeted him in one of the 350 beds at the Knights Of Columbus Hostel.

Unhappily, or perhaps happily as he likes to think, HOLWELL was stricken with mumps for three weeks. as soon as he was discharged from the hospital that Saturday, he made his way back to the hostel at 6 p.m. to look for a shirt he had left under his mattress while billeted there in the tiers of metal bunks. Though his Newfoundland buddies had since been moved back to Shamrock Field his shirt was intact.

The young lad stayed for dinner, and chatted curiously with some of the exotic men still bunking in the hostel dormitories - the Fighting Free French, quartered in what was called "the French Room"; and some Chinese merchant seamen, rescued from the waters off Newfoundland after surviving an enemy torpedo attack.

HOLWELL knew the barn dance show was being staged that night, but was undecided whether to stay around for the fun. He flipped a mental coin, and his good sense won out. "I'm not feeling up to the mark after three weeks in the hospital with the mumps," he told himself. "better I should visit my uncle and Aunt, Mr. and Mrs. Albert MILES, and sit in their nice comfy home at Robinson's Hill."

About 11 p.m., HOLWELL made his way back to the barracks at Shamrock Field in the frosty night. After checking in, he suddenly noticed that the whole sky over St. John's was lit with a reddish glow. Heart pounding, he eluded the barracks fence patrol and ran for three breathless minutes toward the hostel. He heard a furious crackling, and met women with children in their arms fleeing the hysteria from their homes, and he kept thinking, "The mumps have saved me from being a fire victim."

The radio performance of her father and brothers was on the mind that night of Margaret RYAN, a pretty, 28-year-old St. John's housewife. She and her civil servant husband were listening to the radio in the parlor of their three-storey wooden home on Harvey Road, its window immediately facing the Knights Of Columbus Hostel across the road.

She was particularly interested because her father was the Uncle Tim who conducted "Uncle Tim's Barn Dance". His real name was William Patrick DUGGAN, and he was a 55-year-old barber, with jovial blue eyes, and a face like the map of Ireland, who loved entertaining on the side. He had recruited for his barn dance troupe his three sons, Mickey, a pianist of 32, Gus, a 20-year-old dancer, and Derm, a 16-year-old drummer boy.

Mickey, however, had accepted another engagement to play at the Caribou Hostel that night. His ill-fated substitute in Uncle Tim's band was a Canadian Navy musician, Ted GAUDET, and Margaret was curious to see how this stand-in's playing would compare with Mickey's sure touch on the keyboards.

As soon as Margaret heard the chilling scream of "Fire" over the air, she jumped to her feet. In less than a minute, she and her husband raced to their front door, where red-hot flankers were rocketing across Harvey Road and the panes of glass in the adjoining clapboard houses were already cracking like rifle shots.

"I shall never forget the scene as long as I live," she recalls. "The whole Knights Of Columbus building, from end to end and from top to bottom, was one golden mushroom of flame. I saw more men diving from the 20-feet-high upstairs windows, their pajamas blazing. And over and above the roar of the flames, I could hear the pounding of the poor trapped souls."

A rumpus raised by three boozy sailors was on the mind of Joe MURPHY, known professionally as "Barry HOPE, your genial, live-wire emcee of Uncle Tim's Barn Dance". When the fire broke, the newly married master of ceremonies was in the wings backstage, dressed in overalls, white shirt and ten gallon Stetson, a pair of earphones clamped to his ears.

Just a few minutes before the show went on the air over VOCM, MURPHY had been onstage to warm up the audience with his usual "pep talk". This time, however, three sailors seated in front, exuberant from tipping too much, kept interrupting his spiel. No sooner would MURPHY spin a yarn when one of the three sailors would stand up and cap it with his own funny story. This ad libbing drew laughter and cheers from three St. John's teen-agers seated right behind the sailors - Douglas FURNEAUX, son of the distinguished physician, Dr. J. H. FURNEAUX, and his two chums, Hedley TUFF Jr., and Herb NOFTALL.

MURPHY didn't really mind these unsolicited antics, as long as the tomfoolery got the audience in a happy frame of mind. But now that the show was on the air, he was annoyed to hear an unaccustomed crackling noise sputter through his earphones. "Damn, those sailors," MURPHY swore softly to himself. :I had an idea those boys would start something before long."

The thought occurred to him that the special military police, present in the hall from the various armed services, would soon quell the unruly sailors making the commotion. Actually, this crackling was the noise of the flames and the carbon monoxide in the air-tight lofts above, seeking oxygen, and meanwhile building up an unevenly heated gas reservoir poised ominously over the heads of the people. Doug FURNEAUX and his friends in the stuffy auditorium below thought the noise sounded like "the scratching of rats in the attic", or "the drumming of hailstones on the roof."

The sound that stung MURPHY into action was the woman's unearthly scream of "Fire". Flinging his earphones aside, he dashed out on to the stage. He was horrified to see rapiers of mustard-yellow flames slashing out of the slots of the move projection booth at the back of the auditorium. Amid the muffled explosions overhead, he clutched at the microphone, and he pleaded with the crowd and the performers to avoid hysteria.

Just as a blast of searing-hot gas hissed down from the ceiling, and the stage curtains flashed into purple flame, and his own hillbilly overalls caught fire, MURPHY thought of his bride listening to the show from the radio at home. He wondered how she was reacting to her husband's unexpected performance.

"I found out later," MURPHY recalls. "My wife keeled over in a cold faint." A final puff of oxygen touched off this erupting chain of fire gas explosions. This fillip of air was provided by an anonymous Newfoundland Militia man, in battledress, who opened the door of the paper storeroom, apparently supposing it to be a toilet.

The unknown man was spotted by Signalman Maurice WELDON, a 22-year-old Torontonian, who had been on corvette convoy duty with the Royal Canadian Navy for the past year. He'd gone to the hostel dance that Saturday night to celebrate the windup of three weeks' exams he had written for his leading signaler's papers. WELDON was preparing to "hit the sack" early, in the rear dormitory of the second floor, and was already in his underclothes. Then he saw the Newfoundland Militia man open the door of the storage cupboard packed with the fuse-like trail of smoldering toilet paper. A sheet of flame coiled out of the cupboard, and the stranger left the door open, and ran for the stairs, and he vanished.

WELDON raced across to the door and glanced inside. Fire of an incredible white-hot intensity filled the top of the cupboard, and oozed out as if under pressure of a forced furnace draught. Beneath the fire, WELDON saw un-burnt cartons and read the words, "Toilet Tissue". The whole cupboard seemed as if ready to explode, and WELDON ducked behind the door, and in his second attempt managed to slam it shut. As he did so, a jet of bluish flame knifed over the top of the door. In astonishment, WELDON smelled flesh burning, and realized his own arm and shoulder were burned painfully to the bone.

In his underclothes, not looking behind, WELDON tried to shake up the sleepers in the dormitory, four RCAF men and two Americans, and ran on toward the stairs. Blue flashes of gassy heat pursued him closely, like a maniac with a flame-thrower run amok.

When he got to the stairwell, it seemed to him the heat was so fierce he could hardly stand it, for now the tails of the flames were snapping like bull whips. Only at the foot of the stairs did he emerge into a pocket of cooler air, and then he stumbled wearily into the outer lobby and blacked out, and remembered nothing more until awakening in the hospital.

Now flaming disaster swung like a compass needle, aimlessly, all over the hostel. On the stage, Joe MURPHY, the emcee, burned his head and right heel badly, but kept his head. He realized he could do nothing with the crowd, who were stampeding toward the front exit in the savage heat, tripping over the clattering metal chairs in their panic, and dropping like flies from the deadly darts of carbon monoxide gas. Just before the lights all flickered out, he tried to shepherd his troupe of performers to a window backstage.

Four members of his troupe refused to be shepherded. The guitarist, Hector WOOLLEY, a Canadian Navy signalman, had been courting a girl singer in the cast. When he saw her jump from the stage into the auditorium, WOOLLEY followed her to try and save her. A heavy piece of flaming, falling timber pinned him to the floor. When MURPHY later identified WOOLLEY at the morgue by his flawless set of white teeth, "Hector was so completely covered by heavy soot and grime, I thought he was a dead Negro".

The girl singer was horribly burned, but she was rescued. Two sailors picked her up and tossed her out of a window to safety. She wandered about dazedly laughing, like Ophelia, a little mad.

The dancer, Gus DUGGAN, Margaret RYAN's 20-year-old brother, lost his life trying to save others. he saw that panicky spectators were trying to climb over the heads of each other to reach the barred and blackout-shuttered doors. So he jumped down among the audience, and with members of the Newfoundland Militia, heroically attempted to form a human chain, while others battered down the barriers. Rescuers later found the scorched bodies of Gus and the Militia boys in a pile, their hands still clasped together in death.

The pianist, Ted GAUDET, pinch-hitting for Margaret RYAN's brother, Mickey, was crushed to death. And the same fate almost befell her brother, Derm DUGGAN, the 16-year-old drummer boy. Jammed vise-tight against a wall, Derm felt himself suffocating. Then, as the trapped mob gave a convulsive heave outward, he was shot over the heads of the crowd toward a broken-in window. There an American soldier, yelling, "Snap out of it, kid," sustained his flight by flinging the drummer boy out to the snow. His hair aflame and gored by broken glass, Derm was hospitalized for two months, and forever refused to talk about his grisly flight, "in any way, shape, or form".

Margaret's father, "Uncle Tim", or William Patrick DUGGAN, was one of the 20 members of the troupe who scrambled with Joe MURPHY toward the blackout-shielded window backstage. The jovial barber ripped down the plywood shutters, and then his saxophone player, Michael FRELICH, vainly tried to smash the windowpane with his fists. MURPHY then stepped forward.

"I took up a steel chair," MURPHY now recalls, "and threw it with all my force against the window. Glass, window sashes and the chair went hurtling to the snowy ground 10 feet below. Uncle Tim DUGGAN was the first to leap out the window. Since he was in his 50's, it was a miracle he didn't hurt himself in the fall. The wonderful old fellow got up, and caught the others as they jumped, and managed to break their falls."

MURPHY waited until all members of his barn dance gang had dived to safety through that window. Just before he jumped, the ceiling over the stage exploded down, and the piano plummeted flaming through the floor, and he could hear the wails of the people still trapped in the crematorium of the hall, "like something out of a really evil nightmare". MURPHY leaped sobbing into the waiting embrace of Uncle Tim DUGGAN, and the barber thereupon vowed he would never be a barn dance entertainer again.

Doug FURNEAUX, the teen-ager seated with his chums behind MURPHY's hecklers, behaved in a chivalrous manner that would have made his physician father proud. His chum, Heb NOFTALL, was trampled to death in the pandemonium. His other chum, Hedley TUFF Jr., ran to the exit on the west side of the auditorium, which was blocked with bodies piled six feet high and the door locked tight. "By the time I was swept out," said TUFF, "even the framework of the door was plumed in flames. Two girls, with their hair and coats ablaze, tumbled out behind me."

Doug FURNEAUX raced toward another exit - on the east side of the auditorium. He was horrified to find it locked. He tried to kick it down, but was prevented by the surging crowd from getting solid blows at the door. In the tumult and the darkness, someone turned on a flashlight, and FURNEAUX was able to burst down the door.

This landed him in the lobby, and FURNEAUX was appalled to find yet another locked door barred the way to the open air. As a crazed airman knocked himself out by hurling his body at the shuttered door, FURNEAUX took in the eerie spectacle. "Many were blessing themselves and praying aloud," he recalls. "Other, with hair ablaze from the dropping of Christmas decorations, kept running around in circles until they dropped dead on the floor."

Even when the second door was finally battered open, FURNEAUX thought of others beside himself. He helped rescue the dozen survivors who escaped through this exit. He dragged out a Naval rating, unconscious from the poisonous gas. Together with three Air Force men and two sailors, he hauled a Chinese merchant seaman from the lobby out into the open. His legs amputated by the fire, the seaman was unfortunately already dead.

The last man FURNEAUX rescued was an airman. The flyer had torn out the black-out shield from the window. But the exertion had been too much, and now the airman stood limply inside on a radiator, his face leaning against the glass, too weak to smash it. FURNEAUX and the others broke the pane and hauled the inert Air Force man through, as though he were a tailor's dummy.

As burning brands whizzed by his face, FURNEAUX admired the gallantry of Clarence BARTLETT, a burly St. John's constable. The cop carried through the smoke and flame two men and two girls, all four bald with their hair singed off, and the girls naked except for their panties. The constable foraged in the smoke near FURNEAUX for the fifth time and found a huge man, weighing about 220 pounds, all his clothes gone, apparently dead. The constable was trying to drag the mammoth gentleman clear, when a violent gas explosion sent his helmet careening 25 yards away - and BARTLETT most of the way with it.

From his cot in the hospital, FURNEAUX said, "I'll never forget how many people remembered their prayers in their time of crisis." Prayers for each other were now being silently recited by the two Toronto Air Force buddies, Sgt. Max ("Goldy") GOLDSTEIN and Sgt. Bill COLLIS, each unaware of whether the other was alive.

Inside the hostel recreation room, GOLDSTEIN had separated from his blonde dancing partner and was walking around the crowded floor, when he heard a piercing female scream. In an instant, the mob caught him up in its torrent of panic, and he was swept toward the barred screen door exit. His physical fitness came in handy, because with three other servicemen, he rammed the door open, causing his rubbed shoulder to be raw for four days after. As the crowd poured out of this passageway, ringed with flames, GOLDSTEIN stood in the frosty cold, physically petrified. He wondered whether Bill COLLIS was trapped inside, and he still remembers how he thought to himself, "I'm grateful I'm not perishing inside like the others. I'm excited by the danger. Yet I feel so sorrowful at all this useless destruction." Meanwhile, COLLIS was worrying about GOLDSTEIN. He was still talking outside with his brunette friend, when, suddenly he was startled to see the four corners of the hostel engulfed in tangerine-orange flames. He immediately sprinted to the side of the building, brooding over GOLDSTEIN's last goodbye, "See you later, Bill, in the K. OF C. Hut."

Hearing the shrieks and the pounding of the trapped victims inside, COLLIS Twisted the knob of a side door. It wouldn't give, so he kicked it. As the door wrenched open, a blast of furnace-hot air licked out and then sucked back. Then a needle of blue flame streaked out and just barely skinned his cheek. "My flesh shriveled at the heat of the flame, because it was like a live steam bath," he recalls. "I tell you, it was a hell of a shlemozzle." Only six people managed to scramble out of the entry he had broken open. The last was a young Air Force man, the sleeve of his uniform wreathed in fire. "Hit the snow!" yelled COLLIS. When the young fellow stood dazed, COLLIS frantically rubbed snow on his coat, and for good measure, helped him roll in a snow Banks.

A cordon of military policemen then held COLLIS back, and he stood in a trance, trembling as he stared at the mushrooming flames, and thinking of his old pal Goldy. "A terrible sadness tore at me inwardly," he recalls. "I felt so sad and so helpless."

Each involved in their own interior melancholy, unaware of each other, COLLIS and GOLDSTEIN, and Margaret RYAN (worried about her father and two brothers) and the mumps-ridden Reginald HOLWELL (worried about his Newfoundland Militia comrades), stood and they watched. They were part of a crowd of 10,000 who came racing to the scene and stood in the snow, while Army searchlights stabbed into the blacked-out night and illuminated the port town's most ghoulish fire.

At attempt to sound the fire alarm was made at 11:11 p.m. by John ST. JOHN, a prominent local journalist, who earned his keep as a bookkeeper and clerk for the hostel. He was last seen seated in his office, at a desk circled in flame. He was trying to phone the alarm to the Central Fire Station, located only 200 yards up the road. The fire was faster than the notoriously slow night service of the telephone operator. His call never went through. A brave journalist died at his post, his charred fingers gripped to the phone receiver.

At 11:15 p.m., an alarm was finally rung in by a policeman from a traffic box half a mile down Harvey Road hill at Rawlins Cross. Constable S. REYNOLDS could only tell the sergeant at Central Police Station, "There's a vivid light in the sky, somewhere in the direction of Shamrock Field."

This message was flashed to the blackout-shuttered Central Fire Station, so heart-breakingly near the hostel, at 11:17 p.m. Fire Captain David MAHON had his men on the scene within two minutes, the fire pumpers spinning like coins as they skidded on ice. It was too late, for as Sir Brian DUNFIELD later said at the official inquiry, "I think everyone who was still inside the building was dead by 11:15."

Soon lines of fire hoses were linked to hydrants and laced across Harvey Road, Long's Hill, Carter's Hill and Parade Street. Four thousand gallons of water a minute hissed and arched into the night, and the water pressure was raised so high, the firemen could scarcely grasp their nozzles. Their helmets became so sizzling hot, despite the cork linings, that the firemen had to stop at intervals and pour water into them. The heat was so intense, that they could not get within 50 feet of the hostel and many firemen had the very clothes burned from their backs.

It was so obviously useless to throw water on the hostel. So Fire Captain MAHON devoted his men's attention largely to preventing the spread of flames to the scorching-hot clapboard houses on the south side of Harvey Road. They swiftly doused the big blazing buildings to the immediate east and west of the hostel, the Catholic Cadet Corps Armory and the Church lad's Brigade Armory; and, in fact, when the city morgue became over-crammed with corpses, both armories were hastily put into service as emergency morgues.

By now, orange flames geysering high in the night were carrying red-hot flankers over the whole eastern section of St. John's, and lobbing them as far away as Bannerman Park. Happily, not a breeze was stirring now. Dr. Fred ROWE, later Highways Minister in the Newfoundland government, was among the spectators; he recalls that when he lit a cigarette, the flame of his lighter burned evenly and straight up. Had there been one wisp of wind, St. John's would surely have been reduced to an ash heap again.

To help control the scattering fireworks, the Americans dispatched to the scene a thousand-gallon pumper from Fort Pepperrell. The American servicemen jumped into action by joining hands and forming a human chain that encircled the inferno and held the crowd back at a safe distance. Indeed, the military police were so zealous, that they kept forcing the city's plainclothes Assistant Chief of Police and District Inspector to identify themselves, and even ordered the embarrassed fellows off the danger zone.

Not until 2:30 on Sunday morning did the fury of the flames die, leaving of the once jolly hostel no more than a tall chimney, sticking out naked and obscene among the charred ruins. The embers were so hot, though, that the firemen had to continue playing water on the chaos until 8:30 a.m. Ironically, a snow storm then began raging all day, its white mantle in bitter contrast to the black cinders, and the rescuers pried through the ashes with picks and shovels and bare hands and separated the bodies sticking together in death like frozen ivy.

Sgt. Max GOLDSTEIN and Sgt. Bill COLLIS left for Torbay late that Sunday morning by different buses, and their joy at seeing each other at the barracks was something to behold. "Gee, Maxie, you're alive," said COLLIS, grabbing him, and hugging him, and whacking him on the shoulder to make sure his old buddy wasn't a phantom. "Gee, Bill, it's swell to see you breathing," said GOLDSTEIN, returning the embrace. "The gods were sure sweet to both of us."

For the next two days, GOLDSTEIN was commanded to stand guard over the white-shrouded bodies laid in rows on the cement floor of the Catholic Cadet Corps Armory. As relatives came in, he had to lift the shrouds and let them try to identify the corpses. The dog tag discs of some servicemen were so deeply embedded in scorched flesh, they could barely be seen. The bracelets and watches of the women were so directly melted, that chemicals had to be used to uncover engraved initials. The stench of the decaying bodies was so ghastly to GOLDSTEIN, with his athlete's hyper-sensitive sense of smell, that he could not eat for two days. To make matters worse, the decomposing flesh attracted hordes of Newfoundland dogs, and GOLDSTEIN was ordered to shoot them with his revolver.

At the end of two days, when another Air Force sergeant from his squadron was finally instructed to take over, GOLDSTEIN "almost went hysterically mad," and he played a prank that still makes him feel ashamed today. He regarded this sergeant as a "mean lead-swinger and goldbricker", and he thought up a practical joke that would both relieve him of his repugnance at his onerous duty and also let him take revenge. GOLDSTEIN had a corporal show the sergeant how to uncover the shrouds over each body. When the ornery sergeant undraped the last shroud, GOLDSTEIN was lurking underneath, and startled him by leaping out and emitting spooky howls.

"That sergeant didn't know whether to laugh or cry," says GOLDSTEIN, today a prosperous Toronto real estate broker, his name changed to Maxwell GOULD. Shaking his head at the memory, he adds, "You know, whenever I have a barbeque with my wife and child in our pleasant suburban backyard, and I smell wood burning, my mind immediately goes back to that St. John's fire, and I get the funniest shameful feeling."

For a week after the calamity, St. John's reeled with shock. Prime Minister Mackenzie KING wired his condolences. Mayor Maurice TOBIN of Boston cabled that he wanted to rush blood plasma supplies and surgeons expert in the treatment of burns. The people of St. John's appreciated this offer, because only two weeks before, these same surgeons had treated victims of Boston's Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire, when 494 merrymakers died in a similar panic among blazing ceiling decorations. The bereaved were reminded of their tragedy daily, as one funeral procession after another rolled like tumbrels through the port town's icy streets to bury the 19 dead civilians.

Sgt. Bill COLLIS will never forget the military funeral conducted in honor of the 80 servicemen and merchant navy men, whether Canadian, American or colonial Newfoundlanders, finally allied in death. The slow, measured beat of muffled drums and the skirling lament of Scottish pipers playing "Flowers Of The Forest" sounded throughout the entire port town, as the flag-draped caskets were borne on the shoulders of the pallbearers from the three allied services. As the cortege wound through the ancient streets, the cathedral bells tolled mournfully, and a cruel wind swept down from John CABOT Tower on Signal Hill, where Guglielmo MARCONI had received the first wireless message in 1901. As the band rendered "Nearer My God To Thee", and coffins were lowered in the craggy ground, Sgt. COLLIS was among the party who fired volleys into the raw air, and then sounded on the bugle "The Last Post."

"Ever since that barn dance, I have never had the inclination to play my instruments," says COLLIS, today the owner of a successful furniture store on Bayview Avenue in Toronto. He points to his saxophone and clarinet, hanging un-used on the wall of his fire-insulated recreation room, and adds, "And whenever I go into a theatre or a nightclub, I always take note of where the emergency exits are located."

Reginald HOLWELL, having served brilliantly in the Mediterranean war theatre, is now a 35-year-old employee with the telecommunications division of the Department of Transport at Corner Brook in Newfoundland. "My most vivid recollection will always be of seeing so many charred bodies covered with sheets, and grieving for the poor Newfoundland Militia boys who enlisted the same time as I did - guys like Private Cyril HICKS from Bonavista and Private Llewlyn SNOOKS from Curling and Private George LAMBERT from Fortune," he says. "No matter what the results of the official inquiry that followed that horrible disaster, it has been said, and many people here are still inclined to believe, that it was the work of saboteurs."

Sir Brian DUNFIELD, who conducted the inquiry, is inclined to agree. A month after the fire, he examined 174 witnesses in the St. John's Court House, and guardedly concluded it was of "suspicious... incendiary origin" - meaning, in the dictionary's military sense, "an inflammatory agitator who sets fire to an enemy's buildings". In retrospect today, as Newfoundland's most urbane and literate Supreme Court Justice, he freely uses the more forthright phrase, "enemy agent."

Sir Brian dismissed arson for profit a possible motive, owing to the hostel's ownership by the blameless Knights Of Columbus. It wasn't an accident, caused by a cigarette-smoker carelessly tossing away his match, because the cupboard was too small for anybody to stand up in. Moreover, a twin hostel cupboard was observed, with its door open, rolls of toilet paper on the shelf, and the ends pulled out and trailing down to the floor, "an unnatural and suspicious state of affairs."

Most suspicious of all, Sir Brian noted, St. John's was afflicted with a whole rash of fire while his inquiry was still being conducted. A few weeks after the Knights Of Columbus fire, dozens of rolls of toilet paper were discovered cunningly packed in the loft of the YMCA's Red Triangle Hostel, as though arranged for a blaze. "The toilet paper connection is instructive," Sir Brian pointed out. "A criminal often repeats a method which has been successful."

A fire broke out soon after in the St. John's U.S.O. building - "a place where one would not have expected to find it". Four lives were then lost when the fire consumed in the early morning the wall-board constructed Old Colony Club in the city's suburb. "The club was much resorted to by the forces," Sir Brian said, "and on the night before, many of the air Officers in St. John's would have been there but for the postponement, caused by bad weather, of an intended party." Finally, the saboteur evidently extended his activities to the Knights Of Columbus Hostel in Halifax, inserting a lighted cigarette into a letterbox at 11 p.m., while servicemen were watching a movie show.

"These coincidences are at least remarkable," Sir Brian summed up. "One cannot help suspecting a concerted design against building frequented by the armed forces."

Margaret RYAN, the daughter of Uncle Tim, does not have to be convinced that the barn dance catastrophe was caused by an act of sabotage. She is sure.

The shock of the experience still lives with her. She is today a widow, collecting the baby bonus for five of her six children, since Newfoundland became a Canada's tenth province. But she still lives in the same house on Harvey Road. Her bedroom on the second floor faces the spot where the Knights Of Columbus Hostel once stood, and she id still haunted by all its ghostly memories.

"Even now, before I go to bed, I always make sure the shades of my bedroom window are up, so I can see out," she says. "I can't bear to go to bed if they are down. Still my sleep is often broken by dreams, in which I hear the screams of the trapped people, and I see the flames of their funeral pyre lighting up the December skies. The I wake, and I say a prayer for the soul of my dead brother, Gus, and for the souls of all the other cheerful people whose lives were sealed in the saddest barn dance ever held in Newfoundland."

 

 

Page contributed by: Chris Shelley, March 22th, 2000
Page revised: August 2002 (Terry Piercey)

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