On the 26th February 1994 an arson attack killed eleven people at the Dream City Cinema fire, located at 7 St John Street, Smithfield, EC1. The Metropolitan Police would later confirm that the ‘gay’ pornography cinema was deliberately targeted after they launched a murder investigation into the fire related deaths which broke out in the private club just before 6pm on a Saturday evening.
One person was confirmed dead on arrival at St Bartholomew’s Hospital with another dying soon after; six more bodies were found on the second floor and up to 23 people were injured in this rapidly spreading lethal blaze. As the local fire crews arrived they were faced with scenes of pandemonium. At one point people desperate to escape scrambled to get onto Islington’s` turntable ladder. The first, second and third floors were already ablaze and flames were shooting out of the ground floor over the pavement as Barbican’s fire engine pulled up. The injured lay in the street as men jumped from the second and third floor windows to escape certain death.
‘Dream City’ showed straight and gay sex films and occupied the second and third floors in St John Street. Witnesses later said flames engulfed all floors within minutes of the building ‘exploding’. The injured suffering from severe burns, broken bones and the effects of smoke inhalation. The pavement outside became strewn with the dead and injured as firefighters fought the blaze and undertook rescues whilst the police and ambulance crews battled to revive badly burned victims.
The fire had started after a deaf, homeless man called David Lauwers (known as ‘Deaf Dave’) had a fight with a doorman over a disagreement of needing to pay his entry fee again having left the club earlier.But after being ejected from the cinema Lauwers went to a nearby petrol station. He returned with a can of petrol and set fire to the entrance area. The foyer exploded into flames and the fire took hold rapidly trapping most of the staff and patrons inside the building. Eight men died at the time of the attack, seven from smoke inhalation and one from injuries sustained from jumping from an upper floor. Three further fatalities followed in the week that followed and where thirteen were detained in hospital suffering from serious injuries.
The London Fire Brigade’s control room received the first of multiple calls at 1739. Barbican’s pump-ladder (on whose fire ground the fire occurred); together with Clerkenwell’s pump and Dowgate’s Ariel ladder platform made up the initial attendance. They were swiftly augmented by Dowgate’s pump-ladder, Shoreditch’s pump ladder and pump and Islington’s turntable ladder. With pumps made eight at 1820 hrs Euston’s and Whitechaple’s pump-ladders were both dispatched. It took crews wearing breathing apparatus, and some without, four hours to bring the blaze under control, locate the bodies and account for missing persons. Three jets and a two hosereels were used to extinguish the blaze. The Brigade rescued a total twenty-one people from the fire.
Station Commander Ken Emsley (Euston) was one of the first senior officers on the scene. He commented at the time: ‘It was a horrific incident. The worst I have experienced in my 30 years. It was absolutely chaotic. We were working under extreme conditions, with so many people trying to get out of the building.’ Efforts to escape were hampered by a lack of lighting. One man who had been inside said the cinema was ‘very dark and very seedy’.
In 1995 firefighters Raymond Walton, Mark Garrard, James Mansfield and Alan Ward received awards for their bravery in dealing with the cinema inferno.
Firefighter Raymond Walton (Barbican) received a Chief Officers Commendation and Firefighters Mark Garrard (Barbican), Alan Walton (Shoreditch) and Stephen Mansfield (Leytonstone) were each awarded the Chief Officer’s Letter of Congratulations for their respective actions.
As Barbican crews first arrived it was immediately evident that people were injured and panicking and many of whom required rescuing. With one person having already jumped from the 2nd floor of the building, Firefighter Walton was the first to climb a ‘Lacon’ extension ladder to begin the rescues. He doggedly held onto a casualty who had thrown himself head first at him but was forced to let go when another climbed over them both in total panic. He then helped two other people down the ladder. Returning into the building to fight the fire Firefighter Walton discovered other casualties, and with colleagues, got them onto an aerial ladder platform rescuing four people. Finally using a ladder Walton brought down a casualty in a face to face descent but the casualty lost his footing and Walton had to support his whole body weight whilst bringing him down to safety.
Firefighter Garrard had got to work performing ladder rescues and using a hose-reel jet placed himself in harm’s way to protect other firefighters undertaking rescues from the fire. He assisted in the rescue of eight people from the building in difficult and dangerous circumstance.
Firefighter Mansfield undertook the search for casualties on the second floor in extremely hot, smoke filled and dangerous conditions. Finding casualties he assisted them to safety onto ladders at the second floor windows before discovering a casualty that he had to carry down the internal staircase to safety.
Firefighter Ward also worked on the second floor searching for casualties. He assisted the safe rescue of injured casualties before carrying down a casualty from the upper floors, via the internal staircase, to safety. A total of sixteen people were rescued, five jumped from the building killing one, and six died within it. A further four died subsequently from their injuries.
Two days after learning of the gravity of the situation Lauwers handed himself in to Walthamstow police station. He was later given a life sentence at the Old Bailey on three sample charges of manslaughter.
Islington Council said following the fire that the club was not licensed as a cinema. They set about introducing licensing of all adult cinemas in the Borough. Although Dream City was unlicensed and its fire provisions were inadequate the London Fire Brigade was aware of the cinema.Post-mortem examinations showed the seven died from smoke inhalation and one from multiple injuries consistent with a fall from a window.
The other three deaths occurred in hospital and were attributed to the injuries received on the night of the 26th.