In March 1973 a Fortitude Valley nightclub, the Whisky Au Go Go was firebombed resulting in the deaths of fifteen people.
Excluding the appalling colonial decimation of Aboriginal populations, the Whisky Au Go Go fire was the worst mass murder in Australian history before the Port Arthur shootings of 1996.
Among the people killed that night was Pieter Morcius also known as Peter Marcus or to the Brisbane gay community Dutch Peter.
Peter was a popular 23-year-old who worked at the club as a barman and drinks waiter. He was popular with the other staff, the patrons and the local gay community to which he belonged.
At the time of the arson attack Peter was planning to leave his job at the club and open his own restaurant.
A couple of weeks before the fire, notorious Sydney underworld figure Charles ‘Chicka’ Reeves had pulled a gun and placed it to his head at the bar. Peter begged for his life and witnesses described him as very unsettled by the incident.
The Brisbane nightclub scene was going through a volatile period. Newspapers reported on threats of violence and arson.
Rumours swept the town that Sydney crime figures were intent on taking over the local clubs or at least profiting from them by stand-over tactics.
In December 1972 Alice’s Café (owned by a recent manager and bookkeeper for the Whisky Au Go Go) in Brunswick St was torched, followed by Torino’s Nightclub in Ann St in February and two arson attempts on Chequers Nightclub in the city.
Then at 2.10am on Thursday March 8 the Whisky Au Go Go was set alight and the almost one hundred people inside struggled to escape the conflagration.
The club ignored basic fire regulations. Windows were hidden behind heavy drapes and unable to be opened, the fire escape was difficult to find, rubbish was strewn in the stairwell and grease had been smeared on the stairs of the rear fire escape to impede escape.
People smashed windows to escape the flames, and some did manage to exit via the fire escape. Donna Phillips, a waitress at the club, told the Brisbane Times she saw a fireball erupt through the top floor entrance to the club.
“Peter, a young drinks waiter, who was behind the bar, began running. As he was running his hair and the clothes on his back caught fire,” she said.
“As I watched him run to the end of the bar – to the furthest end from the fire… he bent under the bar and tried to get the money from the till. While he was bending over, that is where he collapsed and died.”
Two career criminals, John Stuart and James Finch, were convicted of the crime.
However, there has been conjecture from the very beginning that while the pair probably committed the crime, they were commissioned by someone else to light the fire.
Stuart died in jail and Finch was eventually deported to his native England.
Last year the Queensland Government announced a new inquest into the fire. In recent years various names have been put forward as responsible for the blaze.
One online article suggested a man connected to the club – now elderly and unwell – has signed an affidavit to be released after his death, admitting responsibility. That seems unlikely.
But we can still hope that for the sake of Dutch Peter and fourteen other innocent people who lost their lives that night, that the new inquest identifies the masterminds behind the fire.