FOR nearly 40 years, orphan Lisa Lawlor has replayed her parents' final moments in her head as they died in a nightclub horror blaze.
"Did they realise that their lives were about to end? Did they try to comfort one another before it was too late? Did they think of me?" she asks herself.
Lisa was just 17 months old when her parents Maureen and Francis were killed in Ireland's infamous Stardust nightclub fire on Valentine's Day 1981.
On the night of the tragedy, her dad Francis, 25, managed to escape the inferno – only to heroically run back into the flames to try to save his wife.
Sadly, neither of them ever came out again.
48 killed & 214 injured
The doting parents, who had made a last-minute decision to go on a rare night out, were among 48 young people killed by the blaze in Dublin.
More than 200 others were injured – with terrified revellers trampling over each other and suffering scorched lungs as they desperately tried to escape.
Now, Lisa has penned a new book about growing up in the shadow of the disaster, without her loving parents or the answers she so badly wanted.
And in an exclusive interview with The Sun Online, she admits: “I wonder about their last moments – what were they saying, what were they doing?
"They had a baby at home, so they must have nearly gone berserk.”
Her book, Stardust Baby, comes as new inquests into the fire deaths – including those of Maureen and Francis – are set to formally begin this year.
Lisa, now aged 41 and a mum of three herself, was being looked after by a babysitter at her family's Finglas home when the tragedy struck.
And four decades on, she admits she feels mixed emotions about her father bravely throwing himself back into the flames in a bid to save her mum.
“I’m conflicted completely about him going back in," Lisa tells us.
"Sometimes, when I’m low, crying and missing them, I say, ‘why did you not wait for me?’ And then other days, I say ‘you’re a hero’.
"I’m caught in between two spots – but I’m so proud of him.
"He’s a hero, there’s no doubt in my mind.”
A loving family
As a baby, Lisa was the light of her parents' lives.
She was doted on by protective Maureen, 23, who kept her daughter "spotlessly clean" and dressed in beautiful clothes from upmarket shops.
The mum even told loved ones to wash their hands before picking Lisa up.
“I was everything and more to them," says Lisa.
“I miss them terribly – I’m broken-hearted.
"But I’m more sad for them. They didn’t get to know me.”
I miss them terribly – I’m broken-hearted. But I’m more sad for them. They didn’t get to know me
Maureen hated leaving her one-year-old girl – but on February 13, 1981, Francis won her over with the promise of a fun night of disco dancing.
"We can just go for a little while and then come straight back home to the babba,"Francis, a soldier-turned-barman, smiled at his wife.
"We’re not old yet, love."
From disco dancing to horror blaze
The couple hired a babysitter before heading out to Stardust – the trendiest venue in north Dublin and immensely popular with youngsters.
But in the early hours of the next morning, as the pair and some 800 others enjoyed themselves, flames began to tear through the nightclub.
It didn't take long for panic to hit.
As seats burst into flames, the lights went out, and pieces of melted ceiling dripped onto the crowds below, revellers charged towards the exits.
Many were crushed in the race to get out.
And for some screaming youngsters, Lisa writes in her book, "the attempt to escape was fruitless, as several of the fire doors were padlocked".
She adds that "the windows in the toilets had iron bars".
Dad's heroic last act
As emergency crews – and buses to take away the wounded – descended on the scene, Lisa's father managed to escape into the cold night air.
Frantically searching for his wife, Francis approached groups of youngsters huddled outside the venue, pleading: "Has anyone seen Maureen?".
In response, the traumatised revellers simply cried and shook their heads.
Realising Maureen was still inside, Francis then raced back into the flaming building – in an incredibly courageous act that he didn't survive.
Back at home, little Lisa was suddenly an orphan. “I was left with nothing – the clothes I was in when I was a baby," she says sadly.
'A hand grenade'
For Maureen and Francis's families, the tragedy was a horrific blow.
“It was like a hand grenade getting thrown into two Dublin families," recalls Lisa, who now lives with her kids in the country in Co. Dublin.
"Nobody knew what to do."
The whole of Ireland was also in shock – including the medical and recovery workers who had to fish through the destroyed venue for human remains.
Some victims' bodies were so hot they had to be hosed down before being loaded into waiting ambulances and taken to the city centre morgue.
One 17-year-old, Caroline McHugh, had to be identified by a damaged tooth.
Gran's death 'from broken heart'
In the immediate aftermath of the fire, Lisa – who has no memory from back then – was cared for by her mum's parents, Elizabeth and Paddy.
But just weeks later, Elizabeth, racked with grief over the death of her daughter, had a sudden heart attack at home and passed away.
“She died of a broken heart," Lisa tells us. "She was only 54."
Soon after, Lisa was taken in by her dad's parents, Lally (whom she fondly called "Mam") and Robin, who also had five children still living at home.
But growing up, the young orphan struggled with anxiety, feelings of emptiness and the sudden fear that Lally would die like her parents.
“I remember there always being some sort of chaos around me," says Lisa.
"There was never peace in my heart, even when I was small."
GRIEVING FAMILIES’ BID FOR ANSWERS
THE new inquests into the deaths of the 48 Stardust fire victims follow decades of campaigning by grieving families.
The relatives of both victims and survivors have long been dissatisfied with the findings of previous investigations into the tragedy.
Officials in Ireland originally ruled the probable cause of the fire was arson – but this was ruled out in 2009 following a fresh inquiry.
Over the years, concerns have also been raised about the investigation of the scene of the blaze, which broke out on Valentine's Day 1981.
Politicians and the media were able to walk through the flame-ravaged building in Dublin's Artane suburb just days later.
In September 2019, former Attorney General Seamus Woulfe announced that he was ordering a fresh inquest into the disaster.
Speaking four months later, the Stardust Victims' Committee's Antoinette Keegan said families need the inquest started.
She said: "We can't have any more undue delays.
"We've waited 39 years. Mothers and fathers are getting older and it just doesn't seem fair that this should be delayed any longer."
The fresh inquests are expected to get under way in coming months.
Despite findings of safety breaches following the horror blaze four decades ago, there were no prosecutions over the tragedy.
In a bid to fill the gaping hole in her life, Lisa's grandparents lavished her with gifts – yet the youngster simply longed for her mum "to come back".
"I got dolls, prams, bikes, dolls houses, diamond rings – you name it – but nothing healed what was going on inside my chest," she recalls.
At school, the little girl would often cry: "I miss my mammy and daddy."
Searching for mum's scent
She also started smelling everything – something that a psychiatrist has since put down to her "looking for the scent" of her mother again.
And even today, Lisa, who admits she's "perfume mad", tells us: "If I go to someone’s house, I pick the cushions up on the chair and smell them."
While Lisa struggled to concentrate in the classroom – she left school when she was a teen – she also became an "unwelcome celebrity" among locals.
This was the biggest disaster to ever hit this country and I was the only orphan. So there was plenty of – if you want to call it – spotlight
Known as the "Stardust baby", she felt like she had no identity – with many people curious to find out what she looked like as an older child.
"This was the biggest disaster to ever hit this country and I was the only orphan. So there was plenty of – if you want to call it – spotlight," she says.
Over the years, Lisa has been told many times she's "every stamp of Maureen", with a similar appearance, personality and walk to her mum.
And she says: “Would you believe, I get real excited about that. I love that.
“I’m just glad I'm like her – and people see that in me.”
Yet the comments are bittersweet – because Lisa can't remember her mum's walk, or even her voice. "I don’t know what she speaks like," she adds.
In her book, Lisa – who knew her parents were "gone" from aged four – describes how the fire impacted both her childhood and her adult life.
Since the tragedy, she has attempted suicide a couple of times, had a nervous breakdown and experienced more heart-wrenching losses.
She has also endured other trauma, and horrific "out of body" experiences.
'I saw dead bodies flying around me'
“One of them was terrifying," recalls the full-time mother, whose beloved grandmother Lally died in 2000 – something she says "destroyed" her.
"I was looking up at the ceiling and I was awake, and everything was flying around me – flames, fire, dead bodies, arms, legs, everything.”
But Lisa has experienced some joy, too: she is now mum to Craig, 18, Frankie, 10, and Lennon, six, and has a close bond with her ex, John.
"We’re just best, best friends," she says.
'Guided' by parents
Today, Lisa – who credits hope, faith and John for keeping her alive – speaks to her parents every day and knows they're "guiding" her every action.
"There’s not one day that goes by that I don’t open my eyes in the morning and thank my mother and father for waking me up," she tells us.
She adds of writing her new book, released this week: “I got this immense sense of comfort over me. I know they were saying, ‘do this’.”
To be honest, between the blackness of the smoke and everything else, I don’t think my parents found each other
And while Lisa feels "happy, sad and nervous" about the upcoming inquests, she believes her parents have helped prepare her for them from Heaven.
"I’m going to know exactly what happened," she says.
"That’s going to be tough. To be honest, between the blackness of the smoke and everything else, I don’t think [my parents] found each other.
"It’s a gut feeling but I’m ready for it."
She adds: "If someone says to me, 'your father didn’t find her', I’m going to be broken-hearted but I’m not going to have a breakdown.
"It’s like they prepare me for everything – I can’t describe it."
- Stardust Baby by Lisa Lawlor is published by Mirror Books on January 28
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