When the Second World War began in September of 1939, Newfoundland was a dominion and the oldest colony of England, it was not a Canadian province. The Dominion of Newfoundland was being run by a Commission of Government which was basically three English and three Newfoundlanders with portfolios and abilities to make and carry out laws. A tiny government that was 50-50.
During the Great Depression Newfoundland's economy was brought to a halt when their main exports were disrupted and very nearly financially bankrupted them. Britain was now left with a choice that resembled a rock and hard place – let Newfoundland collapse or pay the full cost of solvency. The latter was chosen and Newfoundlanders gave up self-government on a vague understanding they can have it back when asked. Thus this Commission of Government by 1934.
Things started to improve but for the most part the people were still poor and demoralized. Even when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth came in June of 1939, there was very little cheering and enthusiasm.
The coming of war changed everything quickly. When Germany ignored Britain's ultimatum September 3rd 1939, Newfoundland found itself at war – unlike the rest of Canada. Newfoundland, loyal and true would take part, but their participation had to match their limited resources. They wouldn't be paying, this time, for a full regiment to go to Europe, as they had in WWI – which was a factor contributing to their present financial situation.
With the idea of creating a small Home Defence to defend Newfoundland, the Commission passed legislation creating the Newfoundland Militia. As early as the 15th of September of 1939, the Commission realized it would be hard-pressed to protect much of Newfoundland including St. John's, the transatlantic cable terminals, the airport and the iron ore mines. Britain could not send resources to do it. Yet Newfoundland's role in protecting both Canada and United States was vital, and all parties agreed to that notion.
When Germany had most of Western Europe occupied and when France fell, the British approved Canadian forces to help with the defence of air bases in Newfoundland. In June of 1940 the first Canadian force arrived and by 1941 there were even more, as demand for anti-sub warships was high.
The Americans came along in September 1940 when the United Kingdom promised them 99 years worth of base sites in its holdings. In Newfoundland, the Americans built a few army bases, a dock facility, a naval base and a large airfield.
Thus the abrupt change to not only Newfoundland's economics, but political and social fabric as well – the flood of military personnel and their families. The change was so great that Newfoundland was providing the British with interest-free loans. Newfoundland though was still much a 'backward place' who was use to being isolated from immigrants.
It didn't all go off without a snag though, Newfoundlanders were a proud, stubborn lot back then (still are) and tended to view all others as foreigners and resented them for everything, mostly for dating their daughters though. The Canadians seen the Newfoundlanders as petulant and sore losers due to 'losing out on the vote to join Canada” - even though Newfoundlanders themselves voted no and Americans, well they were likely the rudest, most smart-ass people the Newfoundlanders ever had to tolerate. The Americans and the Canadians both resented the Newfoundlanders for the exorbitant prices they charged.
Though things tended to stay on simmer with these three nations and relatively civil.
It was December 12th, 1942 and it was in this mess of nations and military's, of pride and egos that saw the Knights of Columbus on Harvey Road - a recreation centre the various servicemen used for housing, off-duty entertainment and unwinding – burn in less than ten minutes with at least ninety-nine party goers roasted alive and another one hundred and nine people with severe burns.
It was murderous sabotage.
It was Saturday night and a chilly minus thirteen degrees Celsius, which was warm for this time of year. The bulk of the city's seventy thousand residents were at home by eleven o'clock that night. A number of people in St. John's were tuned in to the radio station getting ready to listen to the popular and local Uncle Tim's Barn Dance Troupe. They performed every Saturday but this night, they were broadcasting from their very own Knights of Columbus Hostel.
The Knights of Columbus Hostel Recreation Centre was a patch work of rooms added to a smaller centre to accommodate the growing military presence in St. John's. Dorms were added above, a restaurant canteen nearly in front of an exit, an auditorium in the basement and a variety of other rooms for varying purposes. It was a popular place any night of the week. This being Christmas week, the entire building was decked head to toe in festive decorations.
It's the 'big do' in town that night and for the servicemen who were stuck in the heart of North America's oldest capital city in Britain's most ancient of colonies, it was the main attraction of the night.
Margaret Ryan and her husband may have been at home, but home was right up the street. She was listening to the show for her father was Uncle Tim - or otherwise known as William Duggan. Her brothers were there too but not Mickey he was playing guitar this night elsewhere, and she was dying to hear his stand-in play, a Canadian of all things.
Nearly four hundred men of the American and Canadian armed forces and their 'girlfriends of the night' jammed into the hostels downstairs auditorium and another hundred revellers dancing in adjoining room; some considered bunking over in the hostels dormitories; or playing ping-pong in the recreation room. No matter how you looked at it, the Hostel was hopping with music, good times, friendly company and plenty of people.
Biddy O'Toole was dancing and belting one out for the show, while two Air Force sergeants, Bill and Max of Toronto were debating whether to stay. People were coming and going in singles and in pairs. Reginald Holwell was feeling bad he didn't go and hang with his buddies, but he was still getting over the mumps.
Weldon, a 22-year-old Toronto boy on the other hand had made a decision to go to bed early in the dorms upstairs and was presently standing around in his small-clothes when a Newfoundland Militia person caught his attention.
Seeing him toss something into the closet then running away piqued his curiosity. Looking into the closet he was shocked to see fire, white-hot with blue flames eating boxes marked toilet paper, that trailed out the top of the door when he slammed it shut as he run to warn someone.
A Canadian soldier by the name of Eddy Adams stepped up to the microphone after Biddy made her leave and with a friendly greeting he began to pluck a well-loved yodel tune, Moonlight Trail, on his guitar.
Having paused, trying to waken some men in the dormitories, unsuccessfully, Weldon found the flames chasing him every step of the way till he reached the stairs. The heat was so intense that Weldon could barely take it and it wasn't until he stumbled out into a outside lobby with cooler air that he passed right out.
Bill and Max had decided to stay and escorted two passing girls inside, parting separate ways as they entered. Joe Murphy had been on-stage warming up the audience, and dealing with hecklers, before the show was about to air. The hecklers, Doug Furneaux, Hedley Tuff and Herb Noftall, were being obnoxious but not malicious, so long as it randied up the crowd he was okay with it. But he did curse them when his ear set started to crackle, thinking them to blame.
At the sound of yell of fire he jumped into action and seen the projector room on fire, the small muffled booms he heard he thought were items in the projector room reacting.
But a searing-hot gas blast from above setting the stage curtains on fire and his own overalls proved him wrong. The flames danced along the ceilings eating all the Christmas decorations that were up, the walls of wood lit up like a match.
He had the odd thought that the radio was still playing.
Bill was outside with his lady when the orange flames were easily seen on the roof, he pushed past those rushing out to get back inside to help and find Max. Hearing shrieks he tried to open the first secondary door leading in, but the press of bodies forced him to kick it in. The heat, the noise was overwhelming but what blew out of that room overtook all of that with its furnace-hot air. A needle of blue flame, barely missing his cheek. Rushing back out the way they came, only six people stumbled out, one on fire.
Margaret Ryan upon hearing the word fire rip out of her radio ran to the door and already the building was mostly in flames. Joe Murphy's wife passed out cold at the sounds coming from the box in her living room and many other St. John's residents stared in horror at the radios broadcasting of the fire as it happened inside. A few explosion noises later and the broadcast went dead.
The fire has been noticed for no more than three or so minutes. John, a receptionist of sorts for the hostel tried to call the fire department - his call did not go through – he was found burned in his chair clutching the phone
The flames were now moving mindlessly, anywhere and everywhere. People were screaming in fear, pain and running in a mad panic. If they were not freaking out, they were seeking a way out with a much calmer head on their shoulders. Some unfortunate souls were dropping where they stood or as they fled, deadly darts of carbon monoxide gas shooting out at random. Many were trampled, the doors were jammed with the crush of people against them.
Max found himself caught up in a swelling tide of human flesh as the mob running from the ring of flames in the hallway carried him to the exit door.
Joe Murphy tried to gather his troupe performers, but they were not having any of it, one, Hector Woolley a Canadian signalman, chased after the performer who was his girlfriend just as the lights went out. Joe, Michael Frelich and William Duggan scrambled towards a blackout-shielded window backstage. William a rugged Irish barber, ripped the shields down and Joe smashed the window with a chair. William jumped first and at fifty was fit enough to survive the jump and to catch the others jumping. Joe was last out with the ceiling collapsing right after his exit.
The fire station was finally made aware of the blaze by a cop who seen the flames a half mile down the road, the Central Fire Station was only 200 yards down the street from the Hostel.
Outside a growing crowd watched in horror as the Knights of Columbus recreation centre burned with a fury. Margaret worried for her father, William Duggan and two brothers, Gus and Derm. Reginald worried for his military friends. They were two of hundreds of people who'd rushed down to see what was happening. Margaret recalled after the event:
"I shall never forget the scene as long as I live," she recalls. "The whole Knights Of Columbus building, from end to end and from top to bottom, was one golden mushroom of flame. I saw more men diving from the 20-feet-high upstairs windows, their pajamas blazing. And over and above the roar of the flames, I could hear the pounding of the poor trapped souls."
Doug's friend Noftall was trampled to death and Hedley who ran for the exit near the west side of the auditorium found it blocked with bodies piled six feet high and locked tight. With the weight of the crowds pushing, the door eventually gave and Herb was swept out with the mass of bodies moving desperately.
Max, a physical fitness instructor made use of his muscles and with the help of three others, managed to batter down the door that they too found locked or jammed.
Seeing Herb blocked by bodies Doug went to the east exit, flames licking the entrance corners, but it too was locked tight and the surging crowd of panicked people around him gave him no quarter to get a good few kicks in at the door. By the time they did he was shocked to find only another locked door. A crazed airman knocked himself out as he tried to break down the second door and Furneaux is quoted later as saying:
"Many were blessing themselves and praying aloud," he recalls. "Other, with hair ablaze from the dropping of Christmas decorations, kept running around in circles until they dropped dead on the floor."
Derm Duggan, younger brother to Gus, was nearly crushed to death by the mob but found himself, when the mob surged forwards, picked up and flung out a broken window into the snow. His brother Gus would be later found burned with the other Militia men who tried to help.
Doug was working desperately at getting the second locked door open and when he finally did, he rescued no less than a dozen survivors – dragging out the unconscious and gravely injured. The last man he helped save was so exhausted from trying to break a window that he was just leaning upon it, arm raised, staring out side. They broke the glass and pulled him free.
Clarence Bartlett, a St. John's constable was seen foraging around helping folks out, conscious or not. At one point the burly cop carried four people out, including three women whose heads were burnt bald. He was last seen after going back in and an explosion of gas blew his helmet twenty yards away with most of him as well.
The Army had search-lights out, a group of military police had arrived and were holding folks back, including Bill who was hot to go back in and find Max. Fire department arrived no more than ten minutes after the fire was first noticed and Fire Captain David Mahon knew already they were too late.
Lines of hoses were linked and over four thousand gallons of water rained down on the recreation centre. The entire East side of St. John's was aglow in the flames light. The heat was so intense the firemen could not get more than fifty feet near it, their helmets heated up despite the cork lining and some had the clothes burned off their backs. It was useless to throw water on the fire, it was too hot and too intense. They focused on preventing the buildings beside it from catching on fire. Which prevented the whole darn city from burning down, again.
The American servicemen created a human ring to help hold back the spectators, they also came with a thousand gallon pumper. But it did not matter, the building burned till nearly three in the morning and still they had to continue dousing it with water to cool it off till almost nine in the morning.
The recreation centre was nothing more than a burnt chimney sticking out of the snow. It was an obscene scene – the charred bodies with hands reaching upwards through the pure white snow. Images of war at your own front door step.
Max had pulled the guard duty to stand over bodies laid out in rows. When someone came in he had to lift the shroud and allow them to see if it was their relative. The smell was the worst and the most memorable to Max, burnt decomposing flesh has its own stench you never forget. Though perhaps the most heart breaking part of his duty for those two days, was having to shoot the Newfoundland dogs attracted to the smell of flesh.
Offers of aid poured in, the surgeons who just battled another similar fire only with many more dead, offered plasma and their services. The city reeled with shock and loss for weeks afterwards and it was only made worse by the steady funeral processions over the coming month.
Answers were demanded.
An investigation was started, an inquiry conducted and Supreme Court Justice Sir Brian Dunfield was the lead man for it. First thing they looked at was the Hostels building design. There were a number of issues about the structure itself.
No plans or specifications were ever submitted by the builders, worse city-officials could not even produce a blueprint or sketch of the building.
Being war-time, there were regulations in effect about light at night, residential and businesses blacked out their windows with wooden boards, planks and or heavy cloth curtains.
The Hostel had also used secondary doors to prevent light from falling out into the street every time someone came or went. These were built around the entire structure on the inside and all the doors built into them swung inward not outwards, which was illegal.
In order to get out to the front street patrons of the hostel had to go through the hostels canteen (restaurant) which was haphazardly packed with tables and chairs. Which was difficult to get through on a slow night, never mind panicked with fire at your heels.
There had been an emergency lighting system installed and the emergency lights over the doors worked, till the power went out. The emergency lighting system was not on its own system and at the time of the fire, nearly all power for the building came from panels in the back of the projector room. When fire hit the box, all the lights went out making it not only very dark in the building but also feeding the panic of the fast growing desperate mob.
Even though Canadians, Americans and Newfoundlanders died there, some believed or perhaps as an emotional and passionate response, that the other was to blame. Finger pointing and accusations rang loud. Americans and Canadians pointing out it was a Newfoundland Militia man last seen at the closet, this was countered with fire was already started. Newfoundlanders proclaimed that the one who seen it dealt it. And on it went.
Luckily cooler heads started to prevail and people were able to look at things with a less narrow view and with less anger. People remembered once again there was a war on.
Reginald Holwell, the boy who decided against going and felt bad for not being with his friends and having fun due to getting over the mumps remembers,
"My most vivid recollection will always be of seeing so many charred bodies covered with sheets, and grieving for the poor Newfoundland Militia boys ... No matter what the results of the official inquiry ... it was the work of saboteurs."
Judge Brian agreed, as did a great many people. After talking to one hundred and seventy-four witness and survivors, he determined the fire was suspicious and likely incendiary in origin. Meaning someone set, likely someone against the Allies, an enemy agent.
It's widely thought, then and now, that the saboteur studied his target before choosing. The L-shaped wooden building they choose, was set on one of the loftiest sections in the centre of a town that burns like cinder. The saboteur was likely aware of the faults of the year old building.
Add in all the building faults; the witness to the unidentified man at the closet; the fact that the fire was the type related to gas explosions and that it wasn't caused by an accidental toss of a cigarette or even a fire out of hand. Sir Brian says,
"a classic case of the kind of flash fire which is built around a low-grade gas explosion. That, in my view, accounted for the great rapidity of the fire. It certainly looks as if an enemy agent was about."
The entire time the inquiry was investigating, St. Johns was finding themselves fighting a rash of fires including one at the St. John's U.S.O building taking four lives. The local YMCA found stacked toilet paper in the loft of their roof. It confirmed for many that the Knights of Columbus fire was purposely set.
"These coincidences are at least remarkable, one cannot help suspecting a concerted design against building frequented by the armed forces."
It's said that the fire likely started around 10:30 pm and for thirty to forty minutes burned undetected, but by then most of the sealed roof was filling with gas and growing more unstable, the plywood cardboard walls lit up like matches and slowly burned its way across, the roof fed the flames a feast and it in return took all the oxygen and built carbon monoxide with it.
The bluish flames burned slowly for at least at half hour before that blast of oxygen from an open door. Which means it could not have been the Newfoundland Militia man seen – maybe he just needed toilet paper.
Sir Brian later stated
"By the time the fire made its first public appearance at 11:10 p.m., all the extensive lofts of the building, tight and unventilated as they were, had become a gas-holder filled with inflammable and explosive gases - an immense bomb over the heads of the people in the building and unknown to them. I think everyone who was still inside the building was dead before 11:15."
There is also a chance that it was all part of a Canadian military back up plan to burn St. John's to the ground if it was ever lost to the other side.
Perhaps the Americans had the same idea.
Maybe it was a Newfoundlander mad that his daughter was out with a non-Newfoundlander.
We will never know for sure.
Today there is only a monument and yearly memorial where the building once stood.