1977: Deadly fire at Saint John jail
Produced a year after the jail fire, this TV report delves into what may have caused the tragedy. Was the padded cell made of excessively flammable materials? Should the staff have been better trained in emergency procedures? MacIntyre also interviews a man who lost a son in the fire. And he talks to John Kenney, the man convicted of starting the fire, who insists he's innocent.
• On the night of the fire, 27 men were detained there.
• Autopsies determined that all of the deaths were due to smoke inhalation. None of the bodies was actually burned.
• In the days following the fire, much was made in the media about the fact that many victims were in there for very minor crimes. The Saint John Telegraph-Journal described a few of these men and their crimes in a June 23 article. For example, Robert Lewis Barton was an 18-year-old who had been charged with underage drinking. His punishment was either $100 or 10 days in jail. Since he didn't have $100, he went to jail and died in the fire.
• The fire began in a padded solitary confinement cell. When the door to the cell was opened after the fire began, an explosion occurred. The fire and thick black smoke spread.
• Prior to the fire, the Saint John police often put intoxicated or hysterical detainees in the padded cell. They did so in order to sober them up or calm them down before allowing them to make a phone call.
• John Kenney had been arrested on the night of June 21 for creating a disturbance and assaulting a peace officer. He was placed in the padded cell after exhibiting unruly behaviour in the police station, and shortly afterward, the fire began. Police said he had been thoroughly searched, however, and believed all his matches and cigarettes had been taken away.
• Kenney was one of only six prisoners who survived the fire.
• There was no real proof that Kenney started the fire, but there were no other credible theories about how else it could have started. He was the only one in the padded cell. According to Linden MacIntyre, it was "in the absence of anyone else to blame" that Kenney was found guilty of manslaughter in September 1977. He was sentenced to a five-year term.
• In February 1978, a highly publicized inquiry looked at how to prevent such a disaster from recurring. The jury's recommendations included:
-Police should be trained in fire prevention techniques for the detention area.
-A sprinkler system should be installed. (There was none in the facility.)
-Two sets of keys should be readily available at all times.(Only one had been at the time.)
-Padded cells should be eliminated until material that is as fire-proof as possible is available for the padding.
• After extensive renovations, the city hall lockup re-opened on March 7, 1978. A sprinkler system was installed and the padded cell was eliminated. According to a March 7 Telegraph-Journal article, the jail now contained "no foam, no mattresses [and] no pillows" that could catch fire. Smoking was no longer allowed in the detention area, and arrangements were being made "to train guards in fire fighting techniques." A city official noted in the article that the possibility of fire would be very slim now.
• This jail fire occurred almost exactly 100 years after another infamous fire in New Brunswick history. On June 20, 1877, a massive fire - often referred to as "the Great Fire of 1877" - destroyed most of the city's architecture, devastating the city. Despite the huge toll on the city's infrastructure, the death toll in 1877 was actually smaller than the 1977 jail fire. Only 18 people died as a result of the 1877 blaze.
Program: The MacIntyre File
Broadcast Date: June 15, 1978
Guest(s): Anthony Allman, John Doiron, Gordon Janes, John Kenney
Host: Linden MacIntyre
Last updated: January 31, 2012
Page consulted on February 5, 2014
All Clips from this Topic
Two-thirds of the aging federal prison in Ontario is destroyed after a...
Men debate: "To defend her chastity, a woman has the right to kill."
Should Canada keep the death penalty?
After would-be bomber Paul Chartier succeeds only in killing himself, ...
CBC Radio reports on the reactions to and repercussions of the murder ...
At Montreal's St-Jean-Baptiste parade, Trudeau refuses to take shelter...
Police crack down, but pornography continues to sell. Take 30 finds a ...
Venture looks at privatized jails. Will they come to Canada?
A 1994 report explains some of the common practices during funerals fo...
Roadside robo-radar gets the cold shoulder in Ontario.
Guess who's wearing the robes of justice in this clip.
Calgary police force names its first female chief.
A small Alberta town is reeling when two students are shot a week afte...
After a joyriding teenager is shot to death on his farm in 1999, oil c...
In 1895, a Cree prisoner becomes a hero to his people and Saskatchewan...
After gaining international renown for her war crimes tribunal work, A...
Rob Ford, Toronto city councillor, opposes efforts to mitigate the har...
Maurice Richard is suspended from the playoffs, and Montreal erupts in...
Police launch a manhunt after the body of JoAnn Wilson is found in her...
A damning royal commission report says racism and incompetence led to ...