After the fire

North Harbour woman recounts the terrible, tragic blaze that haunts her family

Barb Sweet
Published on August 23, 2014

North Harbour is the kind of little place that seems inherently peaceful in its prettiness.
The main road through is rimmed by the harbour on one side and a line of generously spaced houses on the other.

There is the hall, church and graveyard — things you would expect to find in any community.

But startlingly sorrowful in the hilly, seaview graveyard is one particular line of graves.

On June 19, 1980, one family in this St. Mary’s Bay community of just 200 people suffered unimaginable tragedy.

Eddy and Catherine Linehan lost five children that day in a house fire — Francis, 21, Richard, 19, Sharon, 14, Harold, 12, and Barry, 10.

One of the four children who survived — Ida — was severely burned, given last rites and not expected to survive the night. Another child was going to school in St. John’s at the time.

Ida Linehan Young, who welcomed her first grandchild this month, is about to release a book about the tragedy and her life afterwards: “No Turning Back: Surviving the Linehan Family Tragedy,” published by Creative Book Publishing.

“‘She’s dead, she’s dead,’ I heard my mother yelling, and suddenly, as if I was suctioned in, I was back in my body, no longer watching the scene from above,” writes Linehan Young, whose story flowed easily nearly 35 years later.

She was always interested in writing, but when one of her three daughters became interested genealogy, Linehan Young decided it was time to tell the story.

“January 1, 2013, as soon as I opened my eyes I said, ‘I am writing a book,’” Linehan Young said.

“I could sit down every single day and relive every single thing that happened. But since I wrote about it, it seems like it’s getting greyer — it is not as detailed. Because I put it to paper I can kind of let it go.”

The details are so intensely described that Linehan Young brings readers along through the horrific early morning events as the family scrambled to escape the two-storey home after her mother called out that it was on fire.

Linehan Young had her sister, Sharon by the hand, but somehow she slipped away.

“I was getting disoriented but I could see, although in a haze, the floor around my feet and she wasn’t there. … Going back was not an option now and there was no way out back there and I didn’t know where she had gone,” Linehan Young wrote.

Then 15, she spent three months in the burn unit at the Health Sciences Centre, where a kind nurse nicknamed Rusty and Dr. Ken Anderson guided her recovery.

Linehan Young takes readers through the halls of Holy Heart High School in St. John’s — where she was treated abysmally, shoved and taunted by fellow students — during her less than three-week span there.

The book then shifts back to North Harbour, where Linehan Young feels alone in an interrupted stage of grief and reluctant to bring it up to her parents and family who are trying to piece their lives back together.

There is the poignant scene in which Linehan Young goes to the community shop, borrows a halter top and invites neighbours to view her burn scars and ask questions, and another that describes her welcome back at school, when students erupt in a roar of applause after the morning announcement.

Besides the tragedy, Linehan Young’s story also depicts sexism and callousness at the then College of Trades and Technology in St. John’s in the 1980s.

She said she was ridiculed mercilessly and immaturely by teachers and students for entering the male-dominated domain of civil engineering.

One of the few men to show her kindness in that environment — the class president — died in a house fire.

A heartless teacher makes a remark about Francis Linehan, his student who’d died a couple years previously, demanding of Linehan Young, “Is he any relation to you?”

Linehan Young barely manages to get the words out to tell him that Francis was her brother.

The hard times that followed the 1992 cod moratorium are also recalled through the experiences of Linehan Young and her husband, Thomas, as they try to make ends meet with three small children on his TAGS (the Atlantic Groundfish Strategy) cheque after his job as a fish plant worker in St. Bride’s disappears.

There is eventual triumph as the family’s economic situation reverses and they build a home in Conception Bay South.

Negativity dogged Linehan Young for years until 2007, when she attended the Atlantic Burn Camp in Nova Scotia as a volunteer and confronted her own experience, revealing to a counsellor the feelings she was overcome with.

Returning home, Linehan Young and her family walk through the Village Shopping Centre and, wearing her camp T-shirt, she bares her scarred arms, shedding forever the long sleeves that had become her trademark in all seasons.

“I was allowing myself to be a victim. The more you allow it, the more you attract it in your head; your glass is always half empty no matter what,” Linehan Young said.

“Unless you change your whole way of thinking, and that is what you have to do. … I was stuck for years and didn’t know I was stuck until I went to camp.

“Before I went to burn camp, if I had to write the book it would be dark. It wouldn’t be hopeful, just dark, dingy, dismal — a black book.”

At burn camp, she also let go of any guilt she carried about the loss of her siblings.

“You don’t realize you carry that guilt. I slept in the same bed as my sister. I had her by the hand. She is dead and I am alive,” Linehan Young said.

“My brother Neil, he and Richard slept in the same bed. How the hell does that happen?”

But she will not dwell on where her siblings would be now, had the tragedy not occurred.

“I don’t go there because how would you know?” she said.

“My youngest brother was extremely bright. He might have been a doctor. He might be curing cancer now — who knows? That’s it. Our lot in life.”

Before its publication, her brother Neil read a draft of the book and her brother Eddy has read the section about the fire.

“The fire, nobody dealt with it. If they have to deal with it now, I think it’s a good thing,” Linehan Young said.

“My husband read it. … It really affected him. A lot of things he didn’t know.”

But he also told her it was the best thing he had read.

There were some rumours in St. Mary’s Bay after the fire, suggesting Eddy fell asleep on the couch with food cooking.

But an inquiry — transcripts of which aided Linehan Young’s research along with interviewing family and others — completely cleared Eddy and was inconclusive about the cause.

The family suspects, but does not have evidence, that it may have been a faulty dryer. A particular brand later went under recall for having a live wire, but they don’t know if it was the same type.

Her mother, Catherine Linehan, who lives with Linehan Young, had said she would do anything to support her daughter but she would not read the book.

But she ended up picking up the advance reader’s copy Linehan Young had left in the living room, when she was alone.

Catherine Linehan said she hopes no one ever has to understand what it feels like to lose five children. Her eyes light up as she describes how she and her husband, who died in 2001, always loved kids.

The couple went to the graveyard every day, but said little to each other about their grief and what had happened.

Family, friends and the priest — themselves unable to comprehend the horrific loss — helped provide support, but unlike today, there were no counsellors to step in.

“I was all right when I was here by myself reading it. But I wouldn’t think, I wouldn’t dare read it over in front of anyone,” Catherine Linehan said.

“I hope she does good on it. I hope to God people turns out for it.”

The launch is being held at 2 p.m. on Sept. 7 in North Harbour with a community event. A memorial service will be held at 12:45 p.m. that day in the church.

People have told Linehan Young they are looking forward to the book or suggested that they will cry, but are determined to read it.

She wrote extensively about the community and the way it was while she was growing up there, and how people tried to help.

“My God the community never got over it. It was always something they wouldn’t talk about,” Linehan Young said.

“We had such an innocent life, a dead-end community. … It’s still raw for people.”

Linehan Young’s sister, Mary — who was not in North Harbour when the fire happened — lives in St. John’s and her brothers Larry and Eddy live in Ontario. Neil remains in North Harbour.

Linehan Young is donating a portion of the book’s proceeds to the Atlantic Burn Camp.