January 22, 2010

SOHO CLUB - 1980


Photos: Soho Fire Station web site

EDITOR'S NOTE: In early 2012, a reader of the London Fire Journal requested assistance in locating the wife and child of a relative who was killed in this tragedy. The reader, from Panama, had lost touch with the relative's wife three decades ago. On April 14, 2012, the Fire Journal received information that helped bring the case to a close. We are pleased to report it appears to be a very happy ending!

On Aug. 15, 1980, a patron ejected from a Soho club returned with a can of gasoline, lit a match and killed 37 people attending a farewell party - London's deadliest fire since the Blitz.

"There was very little showing at the front; at the rear, the building was an inferno," according to the website of the Soho fire station. "The entire building and staircases were engulfed in seconds. No one inside stood a chance."

The initial call came into the London Fire Brigade at about 3:30 a.m., and proved to be a "bad address" - a location off the Soho station's fireground.

Firefighters were then directed to the club on Denmark Place, which was frequented by South Americans and Spaniards, many of whom were illegal immigrants.

Firefighters assigned to the Green Watch extinguished the fire; Red Watch crews were responsible for recovery of the bodies. The club wasn't licensed.

"We only realized what really happened when we got the fire out and managed to get inside," said a fire brigade spokesman quoted by United Press International.

Initially, London police suspected the fire may have been tied to a dispute between drug gangs or, in a trange twist, feuding hot dog vendors as hot dog carts were stored in a room in the club.

Instead they charged John Thompson, 42, described as a petty thief and drug addict.

After arguing with a barman, Thompson purchased a gallon of gasoline at service station, poured the fuel through a letter slot at the club and set it alight.

He was sentended to life in prison in May 1981.

Colombian Elizarbeth Mercado, 30, the guest of honor, jumped from a second story window along with Eduardo Trujillo, 28, also from Colombia.

"Everywhere there was the smell of petrol and very black smoke - plastic dripping from the ceiling of the club," said Trujillo, quoted by the Associated Press.

Many of the dead were found still seated at tables; other tried to flee.

"The fire spread too fast for them," said Ray Baldwin, a divisional fire officer.

Locked doors blocked escape routes from the venue, which went by the names "Rodos" and "Victor Gonzales."

List of Club Fires from BBC
Nov 1942 - Cocoanut Grove, Boston, 492 dead
May 1977 - Beverly Hills Supper Club, Kentucky, 165 dead
Feb 1981 - Stardust, Dublin, Ireland, 48 dead
Oct 1998 - Gothenburg, Sweden, 63 dead
Feb 2003 - The Station, Rhode Island, 97 dead
Jan 2009 - Santika, Bangkok, Thailand, 63 dead
Dec 2009 - Lame Horse, Perm, Russia, 107 dead