08/26/2012 06:00 EDT | Updated 10/26/2012 05:12 EDT

Families of forgotten tragedy get memorial in Montreal

MONTREAL - It was an unspeakable tragedy, with 37 young people killed in one of the worst cases of arson in Canadian history.

Somehow, it barely made a ripple — not even in the local media. The death of working-class kids in a country-and-western bar happened to have occurred on the eve of a far more famous event that captured the nation's imagination: the beginning of the 1972 Canada-Soviet hockey series.

Forty years later, a lasting memorial is finally being created for the victims. The tribute this week stems from an effort from relatives, including one who wasn't even alive at the time.

After years of silent mourning, sensations of guilt, and psychological trauma, survivors and relatives are relieved there will finally be recognition for the victims of the fire that destroyed the Blue Bird Cafe and the Wagon Wheel country-and-western bar.

"There's no words to express how the families are feeling at this point," said Maureen Doucette, whose uncle, Val Huntingdon, perished in the blaze.

"There was never anything done in Montreal to recognize these 37 victims in the past 40 years, but thank goodness it's happening now."

On Sept. 1, 1972, the Wagon Wheel, a club located just above the Blue Bird, was filled with patrons on a Friday night while a popular band was in town.

The cafe and bar were known as a hangout for working-class Anglo-Montrealers, and about 200 people had shown up for a night of live music and dancing.

Three drunk men, upset at being denied entry by a bouncer, set fire to the staircase that was the main entry to the Wagon Wheel.

The country bar did not have enough fire exits and the primary one was locked. Many who died inside the building suffered smoke inhalation after finding themselves trapped.

The majority of the 37 who died were in their late teens and early 20s. Another 56 were injured in the blaze, which spurred standardized fire safety codes for public buildings in the city.

Three men were convicted. James O'Brien and Jean-Marc Boutin were found guilty of second-degree murder, and Gilles Eccles was convicted of manslaughter.

They'd argued they were drunk and only wanted to scare the bouncer. They were released from prison about a decade later.

But those who lost family and those who escaped the blaze would feel the lasting effects, long after the jail sentences expired.

Those scars became apparent when families, relatives and friends gathered last year for the first time.

"I don't think we fully realize the impact this had on the survivors," said Leona Hotton, who lost her 16-year-old sister, Marlene Dery, to the fire.

Hotton said many of those who escaped are still affected by what happened to them that night.

One woman who helped people get to hospitals and the morgue in a frantic search for friends was never the same afterward.

Another woman can't put gas in her car because she fears the smell. Others have suffered from mental health and addiction problems.

Some families haven't been able to talk about their losses at all.

One family of three siblings was devastated — with one sister who died, one brother who suffered physical and permanent psychological damage, and another brother who also suffered from the psychological impact.

The sister, Elizabeth Montgomery, was the last person to die. She passed away in hospital from injuries she suffered when a fire escape collapsed.

As smoke was billowing into the club, her brother David Montgomery escaped. He happened to be near the right spot — a women's washroom that had a window. He crawled out, across a ledge, to drop to a car below. But the trauma persisted for a long time.

"I was like a zombie for about a year — I just didn't know where I was going at all," Montgomery said in a recent interview.

"I had a lot of guilt about having been lucky enough to survive the fire and that was with me for a long time."

The blaze became known as the Blue Bird fire, primarily because the downstairs establishment was more visible and had its name on the outside of the building.

The victims were a diverse group.

Some were as young as 14. A husband and wife died, leaving behind their four children. In another case, a father left his pregnant spouse behind and never got to see his third child.

"It's just so much loss, so much youth, so much opportunity gone," said Marlie Wirtanen, who lost her sister-in-law, Kathy.

"God knows what these young people would have done with their lives... Think (of those) 37 personalities and what they could have become."

Families lament that the tragedy was swiftly forgotten.

Just a day later, on Sept. 2, hockey's historic Summit Series opened at the Montreal Forum. Meanwhile, the city's administration was preoccupied with planning for the 1976 Olympic Games.

"If you were part of the families, you didn't give a damn about the hockey games and the Olympics," said Wirtanen, from Tide Head, N.B., a village of about 1,000 that lost two residents, including Wirtanen's sister-in-law.

"You were grieving and no one was responding to your grief."

At the time, the victims tried to sue the city and the owner of the property but, facing a strong legal team, their proposed $9-million lawsuit quickly fizzled.

The families of most victims were compensated with lump sums of between $1,000 and $3,000 for their losses.

Some had no choice but to accept. Others wanted nothing to do with what they derided as "blood money."

The fire was the worst in Montreal since 1927, when 78 children died while watching a matinee film, the silent comedy, "Get 'Em Young."

A plaque marks the spot of the 1927 Laurier Palace theatre fire.

But the Blue Bird site was razed and there's now a pay parking lot with nothing official to mark the site. It was through the efforts of Sharon Share, who was born three months after the fire and never knew her father, Jerry, that the cause gained prominence.

It gained further notice when the mother of one of the fire victims was murdered last year, allegedly by a distant relative. That tragedy put the Blue Bird fire back in the news.

Finally, the city administration stepped in.

A number of events are planned on Aug. 31 to mark the tragic anniversary, including a mass, a march by victims' families and a photo exhibit of the fire at city hall. A vigil will be held Sept. 1.

Also, Montgomery says, having a monument will serve as a chance for some people, perhaps, to close the door on the tragedy.

"It is a monument to her (Elizabeth) and the 37 victims ... I think it will help a lot of families and friends with the final healing of the scars," Montgomery said.

"It will help them have a final peace."