Mildred Quilty's story: Surviving the deadly K of C Hostel fire of 1942

Seventy-two years after a vicious fire ripped through wartime St. John's, Mildred Quilty still vividly remembers the tragic night when the Knights of Columbus Hostel burned to the ground, and when a young gentleman on her arm lost his life after saving hers.

Friday marks a sad anniversary, when the deadliest fire in St. John's history claimed 99 lives

Mildred Quilty survived the KFC fire 72 years ago. She tells Anthony Germain what she recalls of the fire that killed 99 3:47

Seventy-two years after a vicious fire ripped through wartime St. John's, Mildred Quilty still vividly remembers the tragic night when the Knights of Columbus Hostel burned  to the ground, and when a young gentleman on her arm lost his life after saving hers. 

On Dec. 12, 1942, in the midst of the Second World War, a fire destroyed the Harvey Road hostel, where a dance was being held. It remains the deadliest fire in St. John's history, and claimed 99 lives.

Eighty military personnel and 19 civilians died in the fire, and more than a hundred people were injured.

Oh my dear ... it was hard. I bet I was two weeks or more before I went out of the house.- Mildred Quilty  

At the time, the K of C Hostel was considered the place to go for 'a time,' with large numbers of military serviceman frequenting the facility.

Many would attend Uncle Tim's Barn Dance, a stage production with singing and music on Saturday nights.

Quilty attended the dance on Dec. 12. She was one of the lucky ones to get out alive.

She spoke with the CBC's Anthony Germain, and told her story.

Pool's Cove to St. John's

Quilty grew up in Pool's Cove on Newfoundland's southwest coast, and came to work as a domestic for the well-known Templeton family in St. John's.

Jim Ryan, who hailed from Bonavista Bay, asked Quilty to the Dec. 12 dance. He was with the Newfoundland Regiment, and Quilty was excited to go with her serviceman, who was nattily attired in his uniform.

"He wanted me to go with him, so I went. He was 19, and I was 18," said Quilty. 

Quilty said she still remembers the dress she wore that night. It had been loaned to her by Anna Templeton. 

Authorities identify the bodies, following the K of C Hostel fire on Dec. 12, 1942. (The Rooms Provincial Archives)
"A beautiful dress, belonged to her [Templeton] ... it was green and beige, and it was all striped around," she recalled. 

The young couple enjoyed their time at the event, but since Quilty had a curfew, she got up to leave around 10 p.m.

"I had to be in before 10:30, and the MP on the door said, 'You can't leave until the dance is over.' I sat back in the seat, and just as I sat back, they sung out — 'Fire!'" 

There were estimates of 350 to 500 people inside the K of C Hostel, most of whom were in the auditorium area attending the dance.   

"But the doors were all barred — so you couldn't get out," Quilty said.

"The doors were not swinging out, they were swinging in. And that's where most of the people were," said Quilty.

She said Ryan had told her to keep holding on to his hand, as he tried to get to safety.

"When I got to the window, he put me out. I don't know what happened to him ... if he tried to help somebody else, or someone pulled him back or what, I don't know. I never laid eyes on him afterwards," she said.

Getting out relatively unscathed

Quilty escaped with singed eyebrows, but was otherwise unhurt.

"My eyebrows burned off, and my nose got burned a little bit, scorched that's all." 

Quilty said she recalls some of those who weren't as lucky to get out of the hostel.

"I just can remember some of them, they were down to the old General. Some of the women there, the flesh was falling off their faces. Oh my dear ... it was hard. I bet I was two weeks or more before I went out of the house."

Quilty said she found out two days later that Jim Ryan had perished in the fire. 

"I took it hard. The people I worked for on Monkstown Road — they wouldn't even let me see the paper."

But the doors were all barred — so you couldn't get out. The doors were not swinging out, they were swinging in. And that's where most of the people were.- Mildred Quilty

Quilty said she thought about the fire's devastation and loss of life often at first, but doesn't anymore.  

"I did first, but not now. If I went up that way [Harvey Road], I always thought about it, you have to pass right by it," she said. 

Just recently, Quilty discovered where Jim Ryan was buried.

Her niece found that his grave is in Mount Carmel Cemetery in St. John's.

Quilty said for 72 years, she had wondered where Ryan had been buried.  

"I know it was a long time ago, but if it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be here today. He was a really sweet guy ... and saved my life. It was a lot to think about." 

After the fire, rumours circulated that the fire was deliberately set by German spies. The cause of the fire, however, was never determined.

In 1991, the Knights of Columbus organization built a memorial to the people who died in the fire.

'Gallantry and honour'

Justice Brian Dunfield ​submitted a report in 1943, as part of the public inquiry into the Knights of Columbus fire. The following is an excerpt from the report:

"The danger of death brings out in human nature both the worst and the best, and no cloud of disaster such as this is without its silver lining of deeds of gallantry and honour. Some, as always, hastened to save themselves; but many, to whom the circumstances gave time and opportunity, did not forget the traditions of their race and service. Of the audience of 350 to 400 in the auditorium it is estimated that about one third were women and girls. Only nine or ten of these perished, and two or three in other parts of the building, in all twelve, whereas there died in all parts of the building eighty-seven men. These facts speak for themselves. A number of specific instances of personal gallantry has come to my notice in the course of the evidence. An effort has been made in each case to obtain that corroboration of personal stories which is usually, at any rate in the case of the military forces, a prerequisite of recognition. This has always been achieved, and in some cases may not be possible, but further efforts are being made, by cross checking and with the aid of police, to verify the stories heard."

With files from Anthony Germain