The K of C Fire, 70 Years Later

11/30/2012

A tragic fire at a World War II hostel is solemnly remembered by Knights in Newfoundland

by Darrin McGrath

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Knights of Columbus Hostel fire in St. John’s, Newfoundland, which killed 99 people.

During the Second World War, Knights of Columbus-sponsored hostels were built across Canada to help on the home front. Like the K of C hut program during World War I, the hostels provided recreation and other comforts for servicemen.

A Knights of Columbus Hostel in St. John’s, the capital of Newfoundland, was opened in December 1941. The facility contained a reading room, restaurant, showers, dormitory, recreation room and a large auditorium.

On Saturday, Dec. 12, 1942, approximately 350 servicemen and civilians filled the auditorium for a concert. Shortly after 11 p.m., a member of the Newfoundland Militia went upstairs to use the bathroom. He mistakenly opened a closet and was met by flames. He ran downstairs shouting, “Fire!”

An official inquiry into the blaze later concluded that the fire had been burning in the attic for some time before it was discovered. The opening of the second-floor closet provided enough oxygen to the fire that it literally exploded through the ceiling of the packed auditorium, terrifying concertgoers as the lights went out.

Officers patrolling outside reported that they saw the sky light up over the building at 11:07 p.m. U.S. Army Cpl. Raymond Hoosier entered the dark building and calmly began assisting people who had been overcome by smoke inhalation. He was later decorated for bravery. Similarly, Constable Clarence Bartlett entered and rescued several people. He was awarded the King’s Police and Fire Service Medal for his actions.

Fire engines were on the scene within minutes but could do little by the time they arrived. By dawn, 99 charred bodies had been taken from the ruins. Eighty of the victims were members of various armed services from both the United States and Canada. Twelve women were among the dead, and 10 victims could not be identified.

Eleven days later, Justice Brian Dunfield was appointed to investigate the fire. When he delivered his report two months later, he said, “I am of the opinion, though I cannot prove it at present, that the fire was of incendiary origin.”

Justice Dunfield listed nine reasons why he thought the fire was caused by arson, including a string of suspicious fires at military sites in St. John’s.

St. John’s is a small city, and people were understandably shocked by the devastating fire. Rumors flew that a Nazi agent had set the blaze, since in the preceding months several German U-boat attacks occurred elsewhere in Newfoundland.

Whatever the cause of the fire, the deaths of so many military personnel was a powerful blow to the generally quiet community and was not forgotten by Knights in Newfoundland.

In 1991, members of Archbishop Howley Assembly decided to erect a monument to the fire victims. Howard Dyer, who was 10 years old at the time of the fire and joined the Knights eight years later, was selected as chairman of the monument committee.

Because the actual site of the hostel was then occupied by a government building, the committee asked the provincial government for a small piece of vacant land across the street. The proposal was accepted, and the City of St. John’s donated the concrete base for the memorial. Every year since, Fourth Degree Knights and members of the public have gathered at the monument on Dec. 12 at 11 p.m. to read the names of the 99 victims.

The annual memorial service is attended by people such as Mary Strickland, who was badly burned in the fire, and her two sons. Together with the Knights, they brave the cold December weather and help to ensure that those who lost their lives are not forgotten.

DARRIN MCGRATH is a member of Archbishop Howley Assembly 0623 in St. John’s, Newfoundland.