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Electrical fault a ‘likely cause’ of Stardust fire

An expert witness has told the Stardust inquests that an electrical fault in the hot press was a likely cause of the 1981 blaze which killed 48 people.

Dr Will Hutchinson, a fire expert for over twenty years and who has been retained by the coroner to give his opinions on the possible cause of the fire, was continuing his evidence today at the Dublin District Coroner’s Court.

Under questioning from Sean Guerin, SC, representing families of the victims, Dr Hutchinson told the court there is “no evidence to show” that the fire was started deliberately in the west alcove, where the fire was first spotted inside.

He also agreed that there was no evidence to show the fire started accidentally there either.

He was asked by Sean Guerin if, on the balance of probabilities, an electrical fault in the hot press was “the likely cause” of the fire in the Stardust. “Yes, it is a likely cause,” Dr Hutchinson told the court.

Earlier, the jury heard how an examination of the hot press after the fire found a “presence of corrosion”, “bad wiring”, and that there had been a cap removed sometime before the fire.

Dr Hutchinson agreed with Sean Guerin that the absence of the cap would affect the operation of the thermostat and that, ultimately, the heat generated as a result could ignite the insulation jacket around the hot press.

Sean Guerin also said the presence of three caps in the bottom of the hot press would “strongly suggest” that repair works were done at some point to the upper immersion unit with the possible intention of replacing the cap, “and that never happened”. “Possibly,” replied the witness.

The court has heard how the hot press was located in the main bar on a wall beside the west alcove.

‘Defects in the electrical installation’

Dr Hutchison also agreed with Sean Guerin that those who carried out reports of the electrics in the Stardust in the aftermath of the blaze formed a view that there were “defects in the electrical installation”.

Sean Guerin cited the hot press as being one of them, and also pointed to previous evidence of “sparks seen from the dancefloor, the flickering of a neon light and bursts of sparks over the stage”. He also said there were “issues” with the overloading of circuits, in particular, around the stage area.

He said there has also been evidence from those who had performed at the club and were powering lighting units from a “single socket”. “That’s a potentially serious issue as well, correct?” asked Sean Guerin. “Potentially, yes,” Dr Hutchinson replied.

Dr Hutchinson also agreed that it would have been “relatively easy” for the seats in the west alcove to be ignited from “molten burning plastics”. He said if such droplets fall on seats, they create a “pool” that will continue to burn and would be sufficient to ignite the PVC coating.

Dr Hutchinson said once the PVC is breached, then the polyurethane foam underneath would readily burn, melt and sustain flaming combustion.

He also agreed that, from a scientific point of view, it would be difficult to see how the fire would have got out of control the way it did without the carpet tiles on the wall.

Sean Guerin pointed to tests that showed after the first 90 seconds of the seats being ignited, from a gas analysis point of view, the atmosphere would have become “immediately hazardous to life”.

The inquests continue tomorrow.

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