Labour Day 1972 was far from a holiday for Montreal. Friday, September 1st, 1972 was a day of immense tragedy and sadness, as citizens experienced one of the largest disasters in the history of the city: The Blue Bird Café fire, which robbed 37 Montrealers of their lives in a single night.
Situated on Union Street between Sainte-Catherine and what is now René-Lévesque, the now all but forgotten Blue Bird Cafe was a nightlife complex that housed a cocktail lounge on the first floor, and a western-themed dance bar named the Wagon Wheel on the second.
While some 300 patrons were enjoying their day off, many of whom were blue-collar Anglophones, pandemonium broke loose. Seemingly out of nowhere, flames shot up the stairway to the second-floor bar, with black smoke overtaking everyone inside.
Patrons who survived the fire described a scene of sheer terror: Pitch black smoke, intense heat, and bright fiery light suddenly invaded their senses. Upon realizing a fire had started, fear set in, and panic broke out as everyone sought the nearest exit out.
But the bar complex's primary fire escape routes were blocked by flames. Those caught in the fire had no other option but to jump onto the fire escape from the bar's kitchen, or jump out of window from the woman's bathroom onto a parked car, twenty feet below.
"There were so many people on the fire escape that the railing broke. People were falling from the sky almost," described one female survivor. "People were screaming, falling, being stepped on," she continued, recounting how, by the time she got out, the whole building was burning. And there were still people inside.
In total, 37 died and 54 were injured in the fire. A majority of those who perished died due to shock and smoke inhalation. On the scene, emergency respondents noted that the smoke was so intense, the skin of those recovered was pure black, covered completely by soot.
What started such a blaze? Early investigators believed thrown incendiaries, like molotov cocktails, were the most likely cause for the fire. The truth, however, was far different.
Jean-Marc “boots" Boutin, James O’Brien, and Gilles Eccles, three young Montrealers in their twenties, were the cause of the blaze, an act perpetrated in a drunken stupor.
After a day of drinking, the trio had went to the Wagon Wheel to meet with some friends, only to be denied entry. Angered by being rejected, the three devised a plan, and then drove to a nearby gas station on de Maisonneuve to fill a plastic container full of gasoline.
While Eccles stayed in the car (allegedly passed out in his seat), Boutin and O'Brien decided to enact their prank. Pouring gasoline onto the stairway up to the bar, the pair then lit a small fire. The plan was to create a big flash, get everyone scared, and ideally get the bouncer fired.
Except the fire didn't stay small, and the prank went awry. Together, the three had caused the worst blaze in Montreal since the Laurier Palace Theatre Fire, when 77 individuals died.
Eccles was arrested at his NDG home the following day. Boutin and O'Brien weren't apprehended so swiftly, as the two left the province, spiriting themselves all the way to Vancouver.
The manhunt for the two men lasted a full fourteen days, and it was an act of chance that they were even found. After Vancouver police received a random call stating a house in the city's east end (1028 East 33rd Avenue) could be involved in drug trafficking, the authorities decided to investigate.
Boutin and O'Brien happened to be in the house during the raid, and the two were then taken back to Montreal to await trial for their crimes.
In an interview held during the trial, Boutin (pictured below) admitted to attempting suicide the night before his arrest. In Boutin's words, neither he, nor the other two men, wanted to hurt anyone, and he was stricken with grief over the lives lost due to his actions.
But Boutin's, nor O'brien or Eccles' grief and regret changed public perception, nor did it lighten their sentence. Neither did their main defence of "but I was drunk."
O'Brien and Boutin were found guilty of second-degree murder. Eccles was convicted of manslaughter. All three were sentenced to life in prison, then released ten years later.
And yet despite the gravity of the catastrophe, and the manhunt that followed, the Blue Bird Cafe fire was quickly pushed out of the spotlight in Canada, and in Montreal.
News sources decided to focus on a lighter news piece, namely the 1972 Summit Series, a set of 8 hockey games between Canada and the Soviet Union.
Families who suffered losses were given even less sympathy and support. A $9 million civil lawsuit was enacted by the families of victims against the Montreal fire department, the bar's owner, and the building's owner, with poor fire safety cited as a major cause for the many deaths.
Then-mayor Jean Drapeau actually headed the defence, and the families went on to settle for a far less significant sum. $1000 to $3000 were given to families per victim, a mere pittance when you consider the children, fathers, mothers, and siblings who were lost in the fire.
By both the city's leaders and media, the tragedy that was the Blue Bird Cafe Fire was pushed aside, an act that still has repercussions to this day.
It was only recently that the City of Montreal formally remembered the victims of the Blue Bird Cafe Fire, with a memorial created in 2012, 40 years after the event. Several memorials were held in late August 2012, all of which were a severely long time coming.
And yet, even following the formal remembrance from the City of Montreal only a few years ago, the Blue Bird Cafe Fire has yet again been pushed out of the city's collective memory. Little to no media covered the anniversary, and very few young Montrealers are even aware the tragedy took place.
But while the Blue Bird Cafe fire may be a dark moment of Montreal's history, it is still a part of the city's story, and deserves to be remembered, if not solely for the families who still suffer pain from losing their loved ones.