August 30, 2012 10:36 am

40 years later – Montreal commemorates victims of the Blue Bird fire

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MONTREAL – One of the youngest victims was a 14-year-old girl who was far from home.

The oldest was a father of four out celebrating his 39th birthday.

In between were 35 others whose lives were cut short by a conspiracy hatched in a drunken haze.

On Friday, the city of Montreal will finally commemorate the deaths of 37 people killed in one of the worst crimes carried out within its boundaries.

On the night of Sept. 1, 1972, three men, drunk from their Labour Day weekend celebrations, decided to set fire to a building on Union Ave. near Cathcart St. The building housed the Blue Bird Café on the ground floor and the Wagon Wheel Bar upstairs, and the men had been denied entry into the latter. (The location is now a parking lot).

More than 200 people were believed to have been in the building at the time. Besides those who perished, more than 50 people were injured. Thirty-six people died of asphyxiation or suffocation as they tried to escape. Elizabeth Montgomery, 24, died in the hospital two days later after suffering a fractured skull and lacerated liver when a fire escape collapsed after she managed to exit the Wagon Wheel.

Montgomery’s brother, David, survived by escaping out of a window in the women’s washroom.

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“I just happened to be in the right place at the right time when the fire was set. I was lucky to have the sense to follow other people who were going that way. It was pure luck,” Montgomery said this week in an interview.

He is one of the many people who lobbied the city to establish a memorial.

Montgomery said another of his siblings, a brother, was injured in the fire and has never recovered, physically or psychologically.

Montgomery said he only recently learned why his sister was at the Wagon Wheel that night. She and a friend, Huguette Normandeau, an 18-year-old woman who also died, were part of a group heading to the Vieux Munich, a downtown Bavarian-style pub that has since closed, when she mentioned her brothers were at the Wagon Wheel.

“So she asked the driver to turn the taxi around and take them to the Wagon Wheel. They weren’t there very long when the fire was set,” Montgomery said.

According to records from the coroner’s inquiry, three 14-year-old girls were among those who died in the fire. One was Patricia Jobes, of Sydney Mines, N.S. While vacationing in Montreal, she tagged along with two cousins to attend a bachelorette party for Irene Sharpajew, a 19-year-old Montrealer who was to be married the following day. Patricia’s two cousins, Ena Towers (listed as 14 during the coroner’s inquiry but she might have been 13) and Judith Ann Towers, 23, died along with Patricia and Sharpajew.

James Bowles, a Point St. Charles resident and the eldest victim, was celebrating his 39th birthday with his wife, Frances, 37, when both were trapped in the blaze and died. They had four children.

The three men who took part in setting the blaze quickly plead guilty to criminal charges and received life sentences.

The details of what happened that night came out during a public inquiry held by Laurin Lapointe, then a provincial coroner. Gilles Eccles, 24 when he was arrested just hours after the fire was set, was one of the first witnesses to testify at Lapointe’s inquiry, on Sept. 13, 1972. He said the idea to set the fire came after he, James O’Brien and Jean-Marc Boutin, (who were 23 and 24 at the time, respectively) were denied entry into the Wagon Wheel. He said it was Boutin (mistakenly identified as Joseph-Marc Boutin during the inquiry) who was the most upset and who first mentioned setting a fire to get back at the doorman.

Eccles said the trio drove to a gas station on de Maisonneuve Blvd., where his father worked, to get accelerant. Eccles talked to his father while Boutin filled a container with gas.

“My father said I was drunk and that it would be best if I went home,” Eccles told the inquiry back in 1972.

Ignoring his father’s advice, Eccles and the two other men returned to the club. From the front seat of his car, Eccles watched as Boutin and O’Brien set the stairway on fire. Eccles admitted he knew they were going to set a fire before they returned to the Blue Bird and that he did nothing to stop them.

The three men then headed to Club 67, a bar at the corner of what was then Dorchester Blvd. and Crescent St., and continued to drink. He said O’Brien’s brother happened to meet them at the Club 67 and was the first to inform them about a fatal fire at the Blue Bird.

O’Brien’s brother, who also testified at the inquiry, said Eccles sobbed uncontrollably the second he learned people had died as a result of their actions. He also said his brother and Boutin appeared stunned.

Meanwhile, police had quickly zeroed in on the three men as suspects.

The men left the bar and headed for a park, where Boutin and O’Brien made plans to leave the city. Eccles headed home, where he was arrested within hours.

Boutin and O’Brien headed west and eventually made it to British Columbia, where they were arrested along with four other people two weeks later in Vancouver when, by pure coincidence, the RCMP raided a duplex as part of a drug trafficking investigation. O’Brien handed an investigator a fake health insurance card as identification, but couldn’t even spell the name on the card. Hours later, the RCMP realized they had arrested the two most sought-after men in Canada.

As was later revealed during the inquiry, Boutin tried to take his own life twice while he and O’Brien were on the lam. Boutin even wrote a letter to the prosecutor in the coroner’s inquiry admitting what he did, because he assumed he would be dead by the time it reached Montreal.

“With 37 people dead, I just didn’t figure I had any right to live,” Boutin told the inquiry after he was brought back to Montreal. “We were mad, really mad, and we eventually decided to set fire to the stairs.”

Boutin confirmed it was his idea to set the fire. O’Brien admitted to taking part.

“We didn’t mean to kill anyone. We only wanted to scare the doorman. The only person I was mad at was the doorman and I wasn’t mad enough to kill him,” O’Brien said when he gave his version at the coroner’s inquiry.

In his findings, filed on Oct. 6, 1972, Lapointe determined the trio should “be held criminally responsible” for the 37 deaths. But Lapointe’s report also criticized government officials, at the provincial and municipal levels, for how buildings were inspected in the city. The Wagon Wheel and Blue Bird Café had been brought up to code in 1961, but significant changes were made to the building afterward without permits. The changes either went unnoticed during subsequent inspections or were “not reported to the competent authorities.”

Lapointe pointed out that despite having heard from several experts on the issue, he was still “perplexed” as to whether the Wagon Wheel should have had two or four exits.

With so many people inside the Wagon Wheel that night, getting the entire crowd out quickly proved impossible. The fire blocked the main entrance. A door on the ground floor was locked from the outside. Witnesses at the inquiry said the door was kept locked to prevent people from sneaking in to avoid paying a cover charge or making free calls from a telephone downstairs inside the Blue Bird. During Lapointe’s inquiry, the owner said a fire inspector verbally gave him permission to keep the door locked as long as there were two other exits. Unfortunately, the only other option was a narrow door accessible through the Wagon Wheel’s kitchen. The path to it was impeded by a stove, which slowed those who tried to use it.

On Dec. 4, 1972, Boutin and O’Brien pleaded guilty to murder under a section of the Criminal Code that did not require the Crown to prove they intended to kill anyone when they set the fire. They received automatic life sentences. Eccles later plead guilty to manslaughter and also received a life sentence, which he appealed and lost.

Eccles and Boutin were both paroled by 1989 and, according to Parole Board of Canada records, did not violate their releases afterward.

O’Brien has been a different story. He was granted full parole on Feb. 25, 1983, but had it revoked at least four times for impaired driving and marijuana offences. He was most recently granted full parole in October 2010, but only after spending 17 months at a halfway house and with a condition that he continue psychological counselling to treat an addiction to alcohol. In March 2011, the condition was lifted after the Parole Board of Canada was told “the aims of the special condition of psychological counselling have, in larger part, been met.”

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