A couple who lost their only child in Ireland’s worst fire have said they are still upset they were not allowed to see their daughter’s body.
Caroline McHugh, from Artane, Dublin, was 17 when she died in the fire that killed 48 young people in the popular Stardust nightclub in February 1981.
A chatty and smart teenager, Caroline sang in local choirs and held down two jobs after leaving the prestigious Loreto College in Dublin city.
Her parents, Maurice and Phyllis, had travelled to Manchester the day before the fire for a family wedding, leaving Caroline with family friends so she could attend the Valentine’s Day dance she had been looking forward to.
“When we first got the news, a family member told us there had been a fire and Caroline was missing,” Mr McHugh said.
“There was so many people taken to hospital, no one was sure, we didn’t know what to think, we were so upset.
“We booked a flight and as we were on our way to Liverpool Airport we phoned home and Phyllis’s uncle told us straight; ‘Caroline’s dead and she’s in the morgue’.
“We were completely devastated. I can’t explain what it’s like losing a child, it’s an empty feeling. You feel empty.
“When we got to the morgue they told us they couldn’t identify her, a policeman said ‘We’ve remains here and we think it’s your daughter, but she has no hair and her legs are missing’.”
Mrs McHugh added: “There was a nun there, she told us we weren’t to go in, so nobody saw their children.
“She was very cold, and we were in bits, I can’t explain it – there was just no feeling.
“She stood there dismissing us. It was crazy, we were standing in a freezing morgue hallway and these people are saying you can’t see your child.”
Examiners used a damaged tooth to identify Caroline, before giving her parents her watch, chain and a melted comb cut out of her jeans in a plastic bag.
“Even at the time, it felt rushed, swept under the carpet,” Mrs McHugh said.
“We were so numb and shocked we just went along with everything they said.”
Investigations into the fire showed that a number of escape routes from the dance hall were blocked as emergency doors were locked by chains. Concerns have also been raised about the investigation of the scene, which allowed politicians and media to walk through the building just days after the fire.
The families of victims petitioned the attorney general last month for a new inquest into the tragedy.
“The government has a lot to answer for,” Mrs McHugh said.
“We were told nothing about the fire even in the days after.”
The couple said in the aftermath of the fire they came home one evening to find the Taoiseach Charlie Haughey in their living room, offering his sympathies, before family asked him to leave.
“We were told what funeral home to use and graveyard to bury Caroline in,” Mrs McHugh added.
“She’s buried in Sutton, it’s not near where we live, I don’t know why, we never got a choice.
“We were grieving so much, we just did what we were told.
“We don’t even know where inside Caroline was found, or what happened to her.”
The couple, now 79, say they have close relations and have watched nieces and nephews grow up without Caroline.
“You never get over it ... it’s the anniversary on Valentine’s Day, then her birthday, then our birthdays, it never stops,” Mr McHugh said.
“Unfortunately we never had any other children, so we missed out on a lot really,” Mrs McHugh added.
“She was a very good girl, a good child, we never had any trouble with her, what more can we say? We didn’t have her that long, just 17 years.”