The Dream City was a gay cinema also known as the New City Cinema in St John Street in the Smithfield district of London which suffered a major fire on 26 February 1994. The cinema was a small private club showing gay pornographic films. The cinema was actually operating secretly and illegally at the time.
One person was confirmed dead in St Bartholomew’s Hospital, six more bodies were found on the second floor and up to 23 people were injured in the blaze. A number of survivors suffered severe burns after jumping from the second floor of the building, and at least one person suffered multiple fractures leaping from an upper storey window as the building was consumed by fire in what witnesses said was a giant fireball which engulfed the building. Unfortunately a further four people died from their injuries in the following days, making the total of eleven dead. Most of the victims of the fire were single men and some of them were homeless men.
The fire was found to have been arson started deliberately after an argument. Homeless man David Lauwers gave himself up and was sentenced to life imprisonment for the incident.
More than 50 firefighters fought the blaze. It is not known exactly how many people were in the building at the time the fire began.
Witness Valerie Martin watched as about 20 people were carried from the burning building. She said: ‘The fire started in a passageway by the video and cinema and it seemed almost immediately to shoot up through the building and through the roof.’
Mrs Martin saw two men aged between 18 and 22 laughing at the blaze and gave their descriptions to the police. ‘There were people sitting in the gutter groaning. Most of them seemed to have burnt hands. They were all in a daze and didn’t seem to know what was going on. I helped one guy. He seemed to be aged about 23. His head, neck, arms and back were burned. Steam was coming off him like he had been in a microwave.’
A student who saw the fire said: ‘I saw two bodies lying on the ground outside the cinema. The flames went shooting up right through the building. It was really powerful – a fireball.’
A survivor of the fire, who wishes to remain anonymous, has written to Gay Activist. These are his own words:
“I was trapped on the ist floor, in a smoke-filled pitch black room for about 40 minutes and am still plagued by the horrific memories of that time (the heat, the crackling of the flames, the other men screaming and crying for their mothers …), which seemed to last for hours.
I cannot tell you how relieved I was when I heard the sirens & then felt water on the floor (I had been afraid the wooden floor would give way and we would all fall into the inferno). And when the fireman stood in the doorway and asked if there was anyone in there …. It was like being visited by an angel, which in many ways he was. I managed to croak out that I was there, I think most of the other men were dead or unconscious, & he dragged me up to the second floor and got me out onto the ladder – the feeling I had at the window, gulping icy air was amazing. All I remember about the 2nd floor, & my journey there, was being dragged over a corpse on the way to the window.
I had a bad time in the immediate aftermath: the NHS Trust for my part of London refused to offer more than 2 hours of Post Traumatic Stress Counselling and I ended up leaving my job & career on early severance – I have not worked for 24 years and exist off a small occupational pension and the kindness of my family.
The gay community made snide remarks about the fire and its victims which echoed those found in the gutter-press. I was told later that it was because most of the guys in the cinema were discreet and not out and, therefore, not part of the gay world ……
I must say that I found the help and support offered by the Met Police, the London Hospital & my own GP was excellent and non-judgemental.”
Following the fire, the licensing of adult cinemas was introduced by Islington Council. Dream City was unlicensed and fire provisions were inadequate, although the fire service was aware of the cinema.
In 1995, firemen Raymond Walton, Mark Garrard, James Mansfield and Alan Ward received awards for their bravery in dealing with the inferno.
Gay Activist has not been able to locate any photographs of this incident. The LBC Radio archive includes radio news reports about the fire.
Updated 8 January 2012