Survivor recalls a night of chaos 65 years ago
A police officer runs past the Knights of Columbus Hostel Dec. 12, 1942. When the smoke had cleared, 99 people had died in the blaze. Photo courtesy The Rooms Provincial Archives, B 9-128, "Knights of Columbus Hostel fire, Harvey Road, St. John's, 12 Dec
It was 65 years ago to the day that 99 people lost their lives in the deadly inferno that was the Knights of Columbus (K of C) Hostel fire.
Many more were horribly burned.
That Saturday, Dec. 12, 1942, was a frosty night, windless and cold.
The Second World War was raging and St. John's was heavily militarized. The United States had a base there, and thousands of American servicemen roamed the city. On Saturday nights, they looked for recreation and often found it at the K of C Hostel on Harvey Road.
In 1942, the hostel was less than a year old. Its two floors offered eating and recreation space, an auditorium and dormitories.
While a sense of pre-Christmas cheer prevailed, military and civilian policemen patrolled the city with restless vigilance. In the three months previous, the German navy had made several attacks in Newfoundland's coastal waters. Four iron-ore carriers were sunk at the Bell Island anchorage with a loss of 69 lives, while the SS Caribou was sunk in October 1942 with a loss of 137 souls.
Mary (Strickland) Thistle, a pretty 19-year-old, was there that night.
Mary (Strickland) Thistle lived on Parade Street, just around the corner from the hostel, where her mother, Mae Flynn (see photo), ran a candy store.
"I used to go the K of C hostel quite regularly because it was so close to my home," Mary recalls.
"They used to get really big crowds there especially on Saturday nights when they'd have entertainment."
On that fateful night, Mary and a neighbour, Frances Dunfield, went to the K of C to hear songs from a local troupe, Uncle Tim's Barn Dance.
"I remember that the hall was jam-packed and the first sign of trouble I noticed was that there was like a haze coming around" Mary said.
"This haze or smoke did not stop the band from playing and things kept going on. Then the lights went out and someone yelled, 'Fire!' It happened very quickly."
Because of the wartime blackout regulations, the hotel windows had been covered with plywood shutters to prevent light from escaping into the inky night.
Those shutters would become death traps for the hundreds of people scrambling to get out through the smoke and flames in the auditorium.
To make matters worse, the hostel doors opened inwards. As the crowd surged against the doors, the weight of the panic-stricken concert-goers kept the doors tightly pushed shut.
The Uncle Tim's Barn Dance concert was being broadcast live on VOCM Radio that night, and for a few minutes just after 11 p.m., the terrified screams of the trapped crowd could be heard on radios in homes throughout VOCM's broadcast network.
Mary Thistle said the K of C quickly became a sea of chaos, terror and horror.
"I tripped a couple of times in the darkness and fell down. People were knocking down the old tin chairs as they ran for the doors. Somebody threw me out a door or window, and when I woke up, or came to, I was behind the CLB Armory," she recalled.
"My face, hands and legs were badly burned. I saw a man standing nearby who lived on Parade Street and I called out to him but I was so badly burned that he didn't recognize me."
The neighbour got another man and together they carried Mary to her mother's house, where Mae Flynn was anxiously awaiting word of her daughter.
Mary was carried into the house and carefully placed on the living room floor. Her mother and grandmother, Catherine Goodland, began to attend to her horrible injuries.
"I remember my grandmother cutting away the dead skin on my legs. She thought it was burnt-up stockings. But I didn't feel anything because I guess I was in shock," Mary says.
By this time, the hostel had been reduced to a pile of flaming rubble. Dead bodies lay in the ruins like scorched logs.
Military and civilian policemen tried to control the scene and attempted to help the victims. Harvey Road, Parade Street and Merrymeeting Road were jammed with ambulances, fire cars and military trucks. Chaos ruled the night as the flames leapt skyward and the water from fire hoses froze on the frigid streets.
After Mary had been given as much help as could be provided, an aunt and uncle rolled her in a blanket and carried her up Merrymeeting Road where they got a car and took her to the old General Hospital.
She spent almost a full year in hospital recovering from her burns, and underwent many rehabilitative surgeries under the care of Dr. Nigel Rusted.
Fortunately, she didn't get an infection.
"Dr. Rusted worked with me to help me recover," she said.
"He used to sit by my bedside and tell me that if I worked with him, we could do a lot together. I used to cry and worry about who would marry me since I was so badly burned. Dr. Rusted used to tell me that he would save one finger for a ring for me."
The official response to the fire was swift.
On Dec. 23, 1942, Justice Brian Dunfield was given the task of leading an official inquiry into the blaze, assisted by Col. John Beretta of the U.S. Army.
Dunfield interviewed survivors, eye-witnesses and others. Mary Thistle could not appear before the inquiry because she was bedridden.
Dunfield delivered his report in February 1943. One of his main conclusions was that the fire had been deliberately set by persons unknown.
Around the same time as the K of C fire, there was a rash of suspicious fires throughout St. John's at sites frequented by the military.
The Old Colony Club, for example, was a gathering place for air officers. It was burned, killing four people. The United Service Organization (USO) club on Merrymeeting Road was also the site of a fire, as were two barracks at Signal Hill and Shamrock Field.
Dunfield noted the suspicious nature of these fires. Rumours swirled throughout St. John's that a Nazi spy was responsible.
Mary Thistle certainly believes the K of C fire was deliberate.
"I think the fire was sabotage for one reason," she explained. "The four ends of the building caught fire at once. If a fire started in a house it would be in one room, not all around at once. We had all nationalities here during the war and it would have been easy for a spy to blend in."
Mary Thistle went on to marry and raise five children: Pat, Ben, Rhonda, Linda and Elizabeth.
Each year on Dec. 12, she attends the memorial service at the fire monument on Harvey Road.
Darrin McGrath is the author of "Last Dance: The Knights of Columbus Fire" (Flanker Press).