Montreal's forgotten tragedy
Aug 26, 2012 / 1:00 pm
It was an unspeakable tragedy, with 37 young people killed in one of the worst cases of arson in Canadian history.
Somehow, it barely made a ripple, not even in the local media.
The death of working-class kids in a country-and-western bar happened to have occurred on the eve of a far more famous event that captured the nation's imagination: the beginning of the 1972 Canada-Soviet hockey series.
Forty years later, a lasting memorial is finally being created for the victims. The tribute this week stems from an effort from relatives, including one who wasn't even alive at the time.
After years of silent mourning, sensations of guilt, and psychological trauma, survivors and relatives are relieved there will finally be recognition for the victims of the fire that destroyed the Blue Bird Cafe and the Wagon Wheel country-and-western bar.
"There's no words to express how the families are feeling at this point," said Maureen Doucette, whose uncle, Val Huntingdon, perished in the blaze.
"There was never anything done in Montreal to recognize these 37 victims in the past 40 years, but thank goodness it's happening now."
On Sept. 1, 1972, the Wagon Wheel, a club located just above the Blue Bird, was filled with patrons on a Friday night while a popular band was in town.
The cafe and bar were known as a hangout for working-class Anglo-Montrealers, and about 200 people had shown up for a night of live music and dancing.
Three drunk men, upset at being denied entry by a bouncer, set fire to the staircase that was the main entry to the Wagon Wheel.
Three men were convicted. James O'Brien and Jean-Marc Boutin were found guilty of second-degree murder, and Gilles Eccles was convicted of manslaughter.
But those who lost family and those who escaped the blaze would feel the lasting effects, long after the jail sentences expired.
Those scars became apparent when families, relatives and friends gathered last year for the first time.
"I don't think we fully realize the impact this had on the survivors," said Leona Hotton, who lost her 16-year-old sister, Marlene Dery, to the fire.
Hotton said many of those who escaped are still affected by what happened to them that night.
One woman who helped people get to hospitals and the morgue in a frantic search for friends was never the same afterward.
Another woman can't put gas in her car because she fears the smell. Others have suffered from mental health and addiction problems.
Families lament that the tragedy was swiftly forgotten.
Just a day later, on Sept. 2, hockey's historic Summit Series opened at the Montreal Forum. Meanwhile, the city's administration was preoccupied with planning for the 1976 Olympic Games.
"If you were part of the families, you didn't give a damn about the hockey games and the Olympics," said Wirtanen, from Tide Head, N.B., a village of about 1,000 that lost two residents, including Wirtanen's sister-in-law.
"You were grieving and no one was responding to your grief."
The fire was the worst in Montreal since 1927, when 78 children died while watching a matinee film, the silent comedy, "Get 'Em Young."
A plaque marks the spot of the 1927 Laurier Palace theatre fire.
But the Blue Bird site was razed and there's now a pay parking lot with nothing official to mark the site. It was through the efforts of Sharon Share, who was born three months after the fire and never knew her father, Jerry, that the cause gained prominence.
It gained further notice when the mother of one of the fire victims was murdered last year, allegedly by a distant relative. That tragedy put the Blue Bird fire back in the news.
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