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1977: Deadly fire at Saint John jail

The Story

Late in the evening of June 21, 1977, fire broke out at a city lockup in Saint John, N.B. That night 20 men died, and one other prisoner died later as a result of the fire. Like many of the prisoners there that night, 17-year-old John Doiron was just being detained for a minor offence - underage drinking. In this excerpt from CBC's The MacIntyre File, the fire survivor tells Linden MacIntyre about the panic in the prison during that fatal blaze. 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.

Medium: Television
Program: The MacIntyre File
Broadcast Date: June 15, 1978
Guest(s): Anthony Allman, John Doiron, Gordon Janes, John Kenney
Host: Linden MacIntyre
Duration: 12:20

Did You know?

• The Saint John city lockup was located inside the downtown city hall. 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 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.


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