St. John's, NF Terrible Catastrophe At Recreation Hall, Dec 1942

Disastrous Fire




St. John's, Nfld., Dec. 14 -- (C.P. Cable) -- Wearied searchers rested today after the last remaining body was removed from the charred, blackened ruins of the K. of C. hostel here, swept by flames Saturday night with the loss of 99 lives and injuries to 104 others of the 500 dancers thronging the hall for the weekly barn dance.
Many of the victims were servicemen, to whom the hostel had been an important recreation centre during their stay in the island's capital. Next of kin have been notified, and it is expected names of the men will be released some time today.

59 of Dead Identified.
Earlier it was reported 110 had died in the savage fire that raced rapidly through the hall, trapping scores within sights of the exits. Later counts of the bodies scaled the death toll down to 99, of which 59 have been identified. The figure may be changed again when the final check-up is made.
Since the fire was brought under control early Sunday morning, police, firemen, civilians and members of the armed services had been toiling to recover their bodies, some using picks and shovels and others tearing away debris with their hands.

Bodies Pile Up.
Mobile cranes were pressed into service to remove buckled steel girders and twisted ironwork, while trucks strained at steel cables pulling down dangerous parts of the ruins, as the search went on.
The fire, one of the worst disasters in Newfoundland's history, broke out shortly after 11 p.m. Townspeople first knew something was wrong when startled cries of "fire" interrupted a radio broadcast of barn dance music coming from the Hostel auditorium. Then the microphone went dead.
Flames roared through the L-shaped, two storey-building, burning spectacularly from the doors and windows. Scores were trapped inside as they packed together in front of the exits in a mad scramble to escape. Piles of bodies blocked the passageways when firemen forced their way in after battling the flames more than three hours in bitter weather.
Upstairs were dormitories and living quarters, and some servicemen sleeping there escaped by leaping from the windows. Others were trapped.

Probe Disaster.
In the auditorium downstairs, JOE MURPHY, master of ceremonies for the entertainment program, tried to make himself heard above the cries and shrieks as he advised the crowd to escape by way of the stage. When he turned around the back of the stage was aflame, so he led his troupe to a nearby window through which they escaped.
The building was well supplied with extinguishers and hoses, but in the panic no one thought of using them, even if there had been time. Cause of the fire has not yet been determined, and there are different reports of where it started. Some survivors reported hearing an explosion from the kitchen a few seconds before the flames entered the dance hall.
Inquiries have been started by police and by the various military authorities in an effort to discover the cause of the holocaust.
Every available facility was pressed into use to care for the injured, and offers of aid came in from outside points.
Mayor TOBIN of Boston offered to send plasma and the services of a leading Boston physician. The generous offer was declined by Mayor ANDREW CARNELL of St. John's last night, as the situation was in hand, he said.
This is the second major disaster to strike Newfoundland within two months. In October the ferry Caribou, flying between St. John's and Sydney, N.S. was torpedoed and sunk with the loss of 137 lives, mainly Newfoundlers.

10-Minute Blaze.
Some eyewitnesses said the fire "seemed to do its dreadful work in 10 minutes." They agreed that efforts of firemen probably would have been futile even if help could have been called before the entire structure was flaring.
The terrified dancers tried to forced their way out through the four exits that led from the L-shaped bulding. As they fought to reach safety, men and women alike were knocked down and suffocated beneath the weight of bodies. Searchers forcing their way in when the fire was controlled, found a horrible tangled pile of bodies inside the main doorway.
Of the dead, 59 had been identified, while the other 41, many so terribly burned as to be unrecognizable had not yet been claimed.
No details regarding service personnel were given, since naming of the units to which they belonged would reveal troop movements.

King's Message.
Ottawa, Dec. 14. -- Prime Minister MACKENZIE KING Sunday night issured a statement expressing sympathy for those whose relatives had lost their lives or had been injured in the St. John's Nfld. fire Saturday.
The statement said:
"The prime minister is deeply grieved to learn of the loss of life occasioned by the fire at St. John's, Nfld. and wishes to express, through the press, his own sympathy and that of his colleagues for the bereaved families and those who have been injured."

Sending Help.
Ottawa, Dec. 14. -- Navy Minister Macdonald announced the Canadian navy was sending a doctor and two nursing sisters to assist in treating the injured in Saturday night's disastrous fire at St. John's, Nfld.
MR. MACDONALD did not say who they were or from where they were being sent.

Popular Resort.
Halifax, Dec. 14. -- Flames that levelled the Knights of Columbus hostel in St. John's, Nfld. Saturday night while the weekly barn dance was on, killing a known 110 merry makers and injuring another 102, robbed Canadian and United States service men of their most popular Newfoundland recreation spot.
Three years of work on the part of hospitable Newfoundlanders, interested in giving men of all branches of the three armed services a home away from home, was undone in the tragic 10 minutes it took the roaring fire to reduce the two-storey structure to a heap of white-hot ashes.
Situated about half-way up the main street of St. John's that slopes sharply up from the waterfront, the hostel was a wooden one, faced with imitation brick shingles.
Up the two main entrances -- ones that were turned into death traps when 500 panic-stricken dancers jammed and piled against them in their dash for safety -- service men by the thousands have climbed in search of a bed, a meal, a dance or a game of billiards of table tennis.
Once inside the building an attendant, usually a pretty girl, checked the service man's coat and hat, and then the place was his. On his right was a billiard room, on his left a restaurant. Besides these were writing rooms.
Back of these rooms was the auditorium, where movies were shown and, as on Saturday night, dances held. It was of average size, holding some 400 people comfortably with exits marked plainly with red lights.

The Lethbridge Herald Alberta 1942-12-14