Families want truth to come out about Whiskey Au Go Go firebombing

The heartbroken families of 15 people killed in the Whiskey Au Go Go firebombing are pleading for the truth as the Queensland state coroner reopens the inquest into the deadly arson attack.

Apr 29, 2021, updated Apr 29, 2021
Sonya Carroll, whose mother died in the nightclub fire, is seen talking to the media outside the pre-inquest conference into the 1973 Whiskey Au Go-Go nightclub fire deaths. Photo: AAP/Darren England)

Sonya Carroll, whose mother died in the nightclub fire, is seen talking to the media outside the pre-inquest conference into the 1973 Whiskey Au Go-Go nightclub fire deaths. Photo: AAP/Darren England)

Loved ones packed the Coroner’s Court gallery in Brisbane on Thursday for the first day of a pre-inquest hearing into the 1973 arson attack.

John Andrew Stuart and James Richard Finch were convicted of murder over the brutal crime and sentenced to life in prison.

Stuart died in 1979, but it was the testimony of Finch, who served 15 years before being deported to the UK in 1988, that was expected to finally reveal the truth.

However, Finch died in the UK before giving evidence.

“Counsel assisting was advised that since announcing the pre-inquest conference, Mr James Finch has since died,” coroner Terry Ryan was told.

Counsel assisting Stephen Keim SC later told AAP Finch died earlier this year and had been due to give evidence to the inquest by video link.

Health issues and the pandemic prevented Finch from returning to Australia.

It was a cruel blow for siblings Kim and Sonya Carroll, who lost their mother in the blaze and remain desperate for answers.

“All we want is the truth,” they said outside the court.

It was just 2am on March 8, 1973, when two drums of fuel were thrown into the downstairs foyer of the bustling nightclub in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley and set alight.

More than 60 patrons and staff tried frantically to escape as air conditioning vents acted as chimneys, pouring black smoke into the club.

The hearing was told there was a single fire extinguisher, a locked hose and an emergency exit blocked by oil-filled drums, making escape slippery and dangerous.

Survivors smashed windows to scramble to neighbouring roofs, but not everyone made it out alive.

Fifteen people succumbed to deadly smoke, with autopsies confirming their death from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Donna Phillips was working the club’s counter that night and is tortured by her memories.

“I was standing by the exit doors, amazingly, and I was one of the first to get out,” Phillips said outside court.

“I was very fortunate to be standing where I was. I remember seeing the pall of black smoke roll up and pass over the ceiling. The lights appeared to go out because they were covered by smoke.

“It was impenetrable. I remember seeing two people die. I saw one man fall and die across the room, and then I saw the lady that I work with on the ground.”

As one of the few remaining survivors, Phillips memories’ will be key evidence at the inquest.

“My role is to recount the story of the night. In some ways, I am looking forward to that,” she said.

“A lot of good people have had devastation in their lives from it – the families of those who lost loved ones more so, and I feel for them deeply.

“I am confident that the true story will come finally forward.”

Despite two men being jailed for murder, the full extent of the circumstances causing the deaths had never been “satisfactorily established”.

Keim said the inquest would hear the focus of the police investigation in the aftermath “was not directed at finding all of the people responsible”.

“The available evidence …. raises concerns that Finch and Stuart were not the only actors involved in those fatal events,” he said.

“These concerns extend to fears that a broader group of persons, including possibly police officers themselves, had some role in planning the attack on the nightclub.”

The new inquest was ordered following the trial over the murders of Barbara McCulkin and her two daughters 44 years ago.

Vincent O’Dempsey and Garry Dubois were convicted of those murders. The trial was told O’Dempsey might have been motivated over fears McCulkin could have implicated him in the firebombing.

O’Dempsey will be a key witness at the inquest, and the coroner can compel him to answer questions.

The inquest was set down for 10 days of hearings in June.

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