The Blue Bird Café and Wagon Wheel country bar were once located on Union Street, south of Ste-Cat’s on the west side, in what is now a parking lot. On Friday September 1st 1972 three young men, O’Brien among them, were denied entry to the Wagon Wheel for being excessively drunk. They left but came back with a plan only conceivable to several inebriated young men – to start a fire on the staircase leading to the upstairs club while it was packed with Labour Day weekend revelers. The fire quickly got out of hand, spreading throughout both establishments. A detailed report on Wikipedia can be accessed here.
Recently one of the many indirect victims of the disaster, a Kathleen Livingston of Brossard who lost her daughter in the fire, was found murdered in her home. I can’t imagine how awful that must be for the family, especially knowing that the Blue Bird Café Fire has almost entirely been forgotten.
Among other things, the culprits have all been paroled from their life sentences. The families of the victims were given a mere 1 to 3,000$ and the City, Fire Dept. and proprietor walked away from one of the worst disasters in the city’s history.
What breaks your heart isn’t the death toll or even the disturbing images – such as these recently posted to Coolopolis – its the fact that it could have been prevented.
Most of those who died died together, huddled in a bunch by a rear window, hoping to escape the smoke and flames. A rear exit had been locked shut, and people were trampled as the patrons upstairs rushed to the ground floor Blue Bird, itself filling with smoke and flames racing across the ceiling support beams. That the fire escape was locked would be grounds enough for the City, Fire Dept. and proprietor to be on the hook for a substantial amount, but the victims were nonetheless not properly compensated.
It’s disconcerting, but the fact that we haven’t had a fire with a major death toll since may be an indication that the city and Fire Dept. take the issue of a major fire at a crowded restaurant or club a little more seriously. There have of course been some spectacular fires since, such as the paper recycling plant that went up without any victims back on June 8th or the fire at the old Franciscan Monastery at Hope & René-Lévesque which went up in flames in February of 2010. Still, I’d hate to think that it’s the kind of thing which is bound to happen from time to time. I remember an ex girlfriend of mine telling me that Steve’s Music Store on St-Antoine was a tinderbox waiting to burn. She indicated that the interior was too cluttered, the exits not clearly labelled and that the owner had bribed the Fire Dept. to look the other way on bad wiring, lack of extinguishers, smoke detectors etc. I don’t know if its true or not, but I definitely tell people I know to always go there knowing exactly what they want, and to make the trip a short one.
I think it’s for the fact that I believe the citizenry needs to always keep one step ahead of the great threats to our communities that we commemorate the Blue Bird Café fire. A plaque is hardly sufficient, and the location of the building – in a what is now a parking lot on an unimportant side street downtown – won’t grab people’s attention. By contrast, I remember seeing a memorial in downtown Toronto dedicated to construction workers killed in industrial accidents (I think it’s near the Metro Toronto Centre) that literally stopped me in my tracks. It was bold and in-your-face, detailing the way these poor people died. Something akin to that in Montréal, to commemorate the Blue Bird Café fire, would be a good use of public funds. Effective use of installation art can drive the emotions of ordinary people, and make them care about issues that may not have necessarily occurred to them without prompting. Something like that for the Blue Bird – something like that to remind us of man’s follies and our greatest dangers and the responsibilities we share as citizens to ensure each others’ safety. Another feather in the cap of big government, I would never want to have corporate interests considered before the needs and rights of the people. If only so much influence could finally come from this tragedy. I think we all share in a responsibility to make something happen here.