Thursday, December 11, 2014

Cassie Brown's account of 1942 K of C fire; tragedy through the eyes of the Duggan family

The following article was published in 1963 in the long-defunct publication, St. John’s Woman (15 cents a copy). Those interviewed include my great-grandfather (Bill Duggan), great-grandmother (Mary Anne Chafe Duggan), grandmother (Margaret Ryan), great aunt (Betty Duggan) and great uncle (Derm Duggan).

HEADLINE: The Duggan Story on K. of C.
Hostel Fire of 1942, Exclusive to Woman.

Cassie Brown, writer/publisher.

December 12, 1942

Radio listeners in and around the city of blacked out St. John’s, tuned to Radio Station VOCM listening to Uncle Tim Duggan’s Barn Dance, heard the startled should of “Fire!” For another brief moment they heard shouts and yells and then their radios went completely dead.
They had been listening to the program for the past fifteen minutes emanating from the K. of C. Hostel on Harvey Road where the troupe was entertaining hundreds of service personnel.
Bare moments later flames were towering skyward, and every home in the city could see the ruddy glow in the black midnight sky, could almost hear the crackle of flame that within moments, claimed a hundred lives that bitter December night in 1942.

DERM DUGGAN (my great uncle)

What does a 16-year-old drummer boy think of as he sits onstage, performing with the rest of his family before hundreds of servicemen?
There were no profound thoughts going through Dermott Duggan’s mind. He had a duty to perform, that of playing the drums with his dad’s famed barn dance, and to have a good time. And a good time he was having, for the barn dance was an unsophisticated, down-to-earth, folksy entertainment act known far and wide. It was quite a family affair with his dad heading the troupe, his brother Mickey (who was playing that night at the Caribou Hut), 20-year-old Gus and himself. Most times his mother came along to watch the dancing, but tonight she was visiting neighbours. Besides, there was no telling what a bunch of servicemen night do when a few hundred got together, so his mother stayed home and visited.

Other regulars in the troupe were Joe Murphy (known far and wide as Barry Hope) who was master of ceremonies, Myer Frelich, Biddy O’Toole and Marge Clarke. A Canadian soldier by the name of Hector Wooley had become popular as a singer and was also considered a member of the barn dance, as well as the regular dancers.

Derm beat happily and loudly on his drum. Hector Wooley had just finished the song “I got no use for Women” which was a laugh, because he was such a nice looking fella and was taking out the troupe’s singer, Marge Clarke, and everyone was sure having a good time … the dancers in the troupe were preparing for the dance, his brother Gus, although in the Newfoundland militia, was onstage tonight to participate in the square dancing …

It was then he heard a noise. What it was he couldn’t identify, but he did think that someone had started a fight — not unusual in a place with so many men.

Smoke was suddenly swirling around him, and in a daze he heard the shout, “Fire!” It seemed to the young lad that suddenly everyone was running around “cracked,” and he sat there at the drums, still automatically beating.

He saw his brother Gus jump off the stage and disappear from sight. Joe Murphy was trying to calm the audience — telling them to keep their seats, but everyone was running around mad …

It was then he found himself in the cloakroom. How he got there he didn’t know, he wasn’t conscious of getting there under his own power, but he knew he had to get his coat. Somewhere in the maze of coats, was the brand new overcoat he had worn for the first time tonight — he had to find it.

Suddenly the lights went out, and everywhere there were flames — frightening bluish flames. The screams of men and women and the crackling of flames blended horribly together, but above it all, Derm could hear his father’s voice. “Dermott, where are you?”

Over and over he heard his dad’s voice calling and he tried to follow it through the hell of smoke and flame, but he couldn’t breathe. Smoke seared his lungs. He remember learning in school that in case of fire, there was more oxygen near the floor, and automatically he dropped and began to crawl towards his dad’s voice, but flames were everywhere, licking at him.

The stage was in flames, and still crawling, the boy kept moving along the floor. Here the flames didn’t touch him, and he felt quite secure … and crawled right out of the crowd of raving, screaming humanity struggling instinctively for survival.

Still crawling, the boy was swept up in the screaming, clawing mass that surged for the exists that opened inwards. He was walked on and burned, but he did make it to the door and actually had his hand on the door …

But it was jammed tight with struggling humans, and the boy was now swept under the mob. He knew he was being walked on, but he felt nothing …

Unrealistically, a voice boomed in his ear and he felt himself being lifted bodily. “Snap out of it kid, you’ll make it.” said a voice with an unmistakable American twang.

Dermott was lifted bodily and placed on top of that mass of struggling humans and like a scene from some nightmarish horror film, his burned and scorched body clawed its way over the writhing, dying humans beneath … to safety … and his benefactor?

TIMOTHY DUGGAN (Timothy was his stage name; his real name was Bill Duggan, my great-grandfather, owner of Duggan's barbershop on Long's Hill)

Tim Duggan wasn’t one bit fussy about playing at the K. of C. Hostel that night. He was always worrying about the reputation of the barn dance troupe, and frankly, he didn’t particularly relish the thought of playing onstage to all those servicemen — who were always on edge, ready for an argument.

But the arrangements had been made, and there was nothing he could do about it. This night, Mickey was playing at the Caribou Hut, but his son Gus, and young Derm were with him. Although Gus was in the militia, he was with the troupe that night as one of the dancers. Derm was drummer.

When his troupe were allowed inside the hostel, he noticed that all the doors were closed and barred behind them. “That’s a funny thing to do,” he said to the guard. The guard shrugged. “Orders,” he said.

Onstage, Tim Duggan noticed that the chairs in the auditorium were all higgly pigly instead of being neatly arranged as usual, but this passed from his mind as the auditorium began to fill, and the barn dance began.

When the show was nearing an end of a very successful performance, there was an explosion, and fire broke out simultaneously all ‘round them. A ring of flame surrounded them, appearing out of the walls as if from a magician’s wand — it was even behind them on stage.

After the first shocked moment, the shout of “Fire!” electrified the crowd and Joe Murphy, the troupe’s Master of Ceremonies, went to the front of the stage and shouted to the crowd to keep their seats.

Gus, he noticed, had jumped from the stage, no doubt to join his buddies in the militia — Gus knew what he was doing, but young Derm …

Derm was not onstage with them, he must have been blown offstage, thought Timothy, and called “Dermott, where are you?”

Smoke and flames made it difficult to see and to breathe, but he kept calling, while the troupe milled around in panick, and then the lights went out.

Meantime, one of the troupers, Peter Stamp of Quidi Vidi, had found a window immediately back of the stage, and although it had wire screening inside and outside, and was a good six feet from the floor, had succeeded in breaking through.

Guiding the frightened, screaming girls, the troupe made it to safety to the window where they crowded in a panic. The instinct to survive rises above all others when sudden death seems inevitable, but realizing the danger of crowding the one small escape hole, Uncle Tim stood beside the window and gave each female a hand, advising them, “Swing over on your hand, you won’t have so far to drop.”

Derm still hadn’t appeared or answered his shouts and as the smoke thickened around them and the crackling flames came closer, Tim said to Joe Murphy — “Looks like Dermott is gone.”

Smoke and flames made it impossible to see but the troupe was fairly orderly in spite the panic. The last female member to go was Biddy O’Toole, an elderly women who sang Newfoundland and Irish folk songs. Uncle Tim grabbed her hand, but she was overcome, and disappeared in the smoke.

Groping around in the blackness he found her hand and tugged, but she was inert. Biddy was dead, then, and so was Derm — the flames were licking uncomfortably close.

The instinct to survive was strong. Timothy Duggan clambered through the window and to safety.

Dazed and in shock, they watched people jumping through windows, their clothes aflame, then incredibly enough they saw the doughy Biddy O’Toole scrambling on her own through the window — she teetered for a moment and the crowd grabbed her and pulled her to safety. The woman thought temporarily that she had fallen back inside the flaming pyre that was the Hostel and she had to be carried away, screaming in frenzy.

Timothy found himself outside one of the exists, jammed with people mad with fear as they scratched and clawed their way to safety — and then he saw Dermott — his son Dermott crawling out over their heads … his face blackened by the flames.

His family was safe.

MARGARET DUGGAN (my grandmother)

Margaret Duggan lived just across the street from the K. of C. Hostel, and naturally she had on the radio to listen to her dad’s barn dance.  At the shout of “Fire!” it took a moment for the seriousness of it to register.

Then it hit her, the Hostel was on fire and her family was inside.

She dashed to the window and tore aside the blackout curtains,  and before her stunned eyes, the Hostel was already a flaming holocaust and she thought dazedly, “Why doesn’t someone call the fire department.?”

Before her horrified eyes she saw people jumping from the windows, their bodies enveloped in flames. She saw one man, in flames, land on top of a car and bounch to the ground and …

Her family was in that fire …

She went to the front door, but her husband caught her, held her fast. “Stay where you are,” he commanded. “There’s nothing you can do.”

He was right. There was nothing anyone could do, least of all she … except watch her family burn to death.

And watch she did, numbed and unfeeling as men tried to force open the exit doors that opened inward and held tightly barred by the struggling mass of humanity rapidly piling up inside.

Men cursed and prayed and women wept, but Margaret stood and watched. A neighbor came up to her and said, “I can cry for you.”

She saw and heard priests and clergymen of all denominations stand on the sidewalk and give absolution to the dying, and the dead, and still she didn’t cry.

BETTY DUGGAN (later Girardin), my great aunt

In the Duggan household on Field Street, a mere short block from the K. of C. hostel, Betty Duggan was upstairs in her bedroom trying on her new evening dress before going to bed. She had bought it for the New Year’s Eve dance and it was beautiful. She could hardly wait for New Year’s to come, the dress fitted so beautifully.

Suddenly there was a loud urgent pounding on the front door, and she thought, with some annoyance, that the barn dance was finished and as usual the boys were too lazy to use their own key.

The loud pounding continued and Betty removed her evening dress and stalked downstairs and unlocked the front door.

The sight that met her eyes left her speechless with shock. Dermott, her 16-year-old brother, was standing in the doorway minis his hair, his face grotesquely blackened, eyes staring. His arms were held up slightly above his head, and as she brushed past into the house his arms remained in that ludicrous position.

Behind Dermott came her father, eyes wide with shock. “Where’s Gus?” he asked.

But Gus wasn’t home, and her father, giving her a brief account of what happened left almost immediately. “I’ve got to find Gus,” he said.

Oddly enough, Betty’s mind was still (in a detached way) on her beautiful evening dress. Somehow, she felt, she wouldn’t be wearing that lovely evening dress this New Year’s Eve.

Meanwhile, neighbours crowded into their home, giving Betty the lurid details in a noisy excitable way. Her mother who had been visiting a neighbor was in a state of shock. All the while young Dermott, arms still raised, walked silently ‘round and ‘round from room to room, uttering not a sound. His tongue was scorched and blackened, and he seemed oblivious of all that was going on around him — like a mechanical toy he walked and walked, but did not slow down or run down.

It frightened Betty to see him stalking so, not uttering a sound until one of the neighbours offered to clean his burns.

“Don’t touch me!” he said, and eyes staring, arms raised, continued his ceaseless walking.

Betty, ordinarily a calm, unexcited person, could no longer stand the suffering of her brother, she slipped on her coat, and went to the store on the corner of the street and phoned Dr. Policoff, whose office was in the next block.

But the Doctor’s office was already overflowing, and he requested her to bring Dermott to his office. As she was returning to her home to take her brother to the doctor a thought struck her. Why hadn’t she use their own phone?

She had no time to ponder her own foolish action, for Derm was still walking from room to room. He obediently walked through the streets to the doctor’s office, still uttering no sound, his arms still raised, and had the singed scorched clothes cut from his body. From there he was whisked to the hospital.

Back at the Duggan home, male members of the barn dance troupe arrived one by one. All were excited, voluble, eyes staring from their heads.

They talked excitedly to each other and at once, and it was obvious they were in a state of shock.

Betty put the kettle on. What they all needed was a good cup of tea.

TIMOTHY DUGGAN (my great-grandfather)

Timothy Duggan walked the short block from his home to the hostel. By now it was mostly all over, although firemen were still pouring water on the smouldering ruins.

But people were still there by the hundreds, unable to take their eyes from the tomb of a hundred people. Timothy saw a familiar face. “Did you see Gus?” he asked.

But nobody saw Gus, and Timothy Duggan walked endlessly around, asking, asking — did anyone see Gus Duggan?

Then finally, heartfelt relief. Yes, someone has seen Gus with some other militia soldiers.

Gus was safe. But where was he?

He wandered further, looking into faces. “Have you seen Gus Duggan?”

And the reply. “I didn’t, but I was talking to someone who did.”

He went to his daughter’s home. “Margaret, have you seen Gus?” But Margaret Ryan hadn’t. “Well, he’s alright, people have seen him.” He assured her, and returned home, confident that his son Gus would turn up anytime.

Gus didn’t turn up that night or the next day either. Friends were emphatic that they had seen him go off in a truck with other members of the Militia, they weren’t aware that another young man in the Militia bore a strong resemblance to Gus Duggan.

But Timothy Duggan was beginning to have a gnawing fear that Gus wasn’t alright.

Surely the boy would have let them know he was alright …

GUS DUGGAN (my great uncle)

Searchers found the bodies of the Newfoundland Malitia soldiers lying face down in the ruins. They were unscarred and unburned, but their faces were puffed and discoloured. They were lying in an orderly line, their hands joined to form a barrier. It was obvious that these young men had used their training to try and restore order to the panic-stricken mob.

One of the dead soldiers was Gus Duggan.


Cpl. Ray E. Hoosier, a 21-year-old American soldier of Malden, Missouri, U.S.A. was a big young man. On the night of the K. of C. Hostel fire, he had admittedly been drinking. He had been passing the K. of C. Hostel when the first fire victims began to jump from windows.

In the moments that followed, Cpl. Hoosier and several other passers-by gathered and rushed to one of the side exists to see if they could be of any assistance.

The exists opened inward, and the young American and his fellowmen pushed mightily. They had to push against the crowd which was beginning to pile up inside, but they had to get the doors open.

Cpl. Hoosier was drawn into the inferno with the opening of the door and he found himself well inside the mob now fighting to get out through the door.

Still not sobered, and feeling rather reckless, the young man spotted the form of young Derm Duggan being trampled by he panic-stricken mob.

HE reached down, picked up the inert young lad and said encouragingly, “Snap out of it, kid, you’ll make it.”

He placed the boy on the heads of the solid mass of humans, and continued on his mission of mercy.

Cpl. Ray E. Hoosier was later commended for saving five lives that night, before walking out of the hostel again, unscathed.


Hector Woolley, the personable young Canadian Sailor who sang with the troupe, is credited with saving several lives, including that of the girl singer, Miss Clarke. When last seen he was helping others excape.

He was never seen again, nor was there anything left of him to identify.

On December 28th, 1942 Dermott Duggan was released from the hospital.

One hundred people perished in the holocaust, and subsequent investigation laid the cause to sabotage.

MRS. TIMOTHY DUGGAN (Mary Ann Chafe Duggan), my great-grandmother

Mrs. Timothy Duggan decided not to go to the barn dance that fateful night. Her son, Gus, had arrived home from militia headquarters and has passed her his insurance papers a few minutes before leaving to attend the barn dance at the Hostel. They were made out to her.

After the tragedy, when Gus’ affairs were wound up and she was the recipient of the insurance money, she reacted violently, refusing to touch it. It was “blood money,” she said.

The tragedy, which took a hundred lives, also finished the Timothy Duggan Barn Dance Troupe. It was later revived by Barry Hope (Joe Murphy), but many of the old troupers did not participate.

1 comment:

Kathleen hoffmeyer said...

Hi Cassie,
I just read your article on the k o. Fire.
Biddy o' toole is my grandmother.
I was wondering if you had any old photos or tapes of the barn dance.,or any other information you could pass along. Anything would be so appreciated.
Kathleen hoffmeyer