December 12, 1942
On Saturday, December 12, 1942, many people in St. John’s were sitting at home behind their blackout curtains, listening to “Uncle Tim’s Barn Dance” on the radio station VOCM. This weekly program was broadcast live from the Knights of Columbus Leave Centre (Hostel) on Harvey Road in St. John’s.
Just after 11:00 pm, people listening to the broadcast heard the singer on stage break off in the middle of a song, and then someone shouted “Fire, Fire.” Sounds of people panicking could be heard, then smashing glass, then the broadcast went silent.
About 500 people were in the building when it caught fire. Most were listening to the radio broadcast, but some were sleeping in the servicemen’s hostel. The windows in the hall of the newly-built K of C Leave Centre had been boarded over to meet blackout regulations. Doors were either locked, or barred from the outside. The wooden building burned very quickly. Paper streamers that had decorated the ceiling of the hall ignited and fell onto the people below. A few windows and doors were smashed open, but many people could not escape.
As the building rapidly burned to the ground, 99 people died, and another 107 were hurt. St. John’s had seen many serious fires over the years, but never one with such loss of life.
At the time, there were rumours of sabotage by a German agent, but the cause of the fire was never determined.
Residents had reason for concern. Bell Island (just 20 minutes from St. John’s) is one of the few locations in North America that German forces directly attacked during the Second World War. U-boats raided the island twice in 1942, sinking four ore carriers and killing more than 60 men. On September 5, 1942 the Germans sunk the Strathcona and Saganaga. Twenty nine men were killed in the attack. The next attack at Bell Island occurred almost exactly two months later, on November 2, 1942.
The Knights of Columbus Hostel was located on Harvey Road, a Tim Horton’s franchise is now standing on the site. A granite memorial was placed a little to the east commemorating those who died in the fire.
Recommended Archival Collection: GN 128 Royal Commission of Enquiry into the Destruction by Fire of the Knights of Columbus Hostel, December 12, 1942 . In this collection researchers will find typed transcripts, questionnaires completed by military personnel, commissioner’s notes, statements by civilian witnesses, lists of civilian witnesses, and eight blueprints of the Knights of Columbus Hostel.
Recommended Book: The Last Dance by Darrin McGrath: Flanker Press, St. John’s, 2002.