Inside horrors of New Cross fire tragedy which left 13 dead – and nothing said

Magdalene Edwards remembers the sound of the screams and the smell of the thick smoke as it billowed through the house.

She was a three-months-pregnant teenager when she survived a notorious blaze in South London by jumping from a second-storey window.

Forty years on from the New Cross Fire, the memories haunt Magdalene, who says she is still suffering and searching for answers.

Speaking about the ordeal for the first time, the 56-year-old mum says: “Every time the anniversary comes around I don’t feel good at all.

“I survived because I managed to jump out of the window and I am still haunted at the scene of all these young people panicking when we ­realised we were going to die.

“Survivors are suffering from PTSD but we’ve been told to ‘move on and get over it’.”

The night was a birthday ­celebration for 16-year-old Yvonne Ruddock and 18-year-old Angela Jackson at the Ruddock family home – 439 New Cross Road in South London.

But early on January 18, 1981, 13 black partygoers – including Magdalene’s ­stepsister Roseline Henry – were killed when the fire ripped through the ­three-storey Victorian house.

The blaze, believed to have been set by racist thugs, is one of the biggest tragedies the black British community has faced.

Fury over the police investigation when partygoers began to be treated as arson suspects, led to a 20,000-strong protest through London and is also thought to be one of the catalysts for the Brixton uprising in April 1981.

The tragedy was an issue raised in Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen’s recent film Alex Wheatle, starring Sheyi Cole, about the writer who was sentenced to jail after the uprising.

Magdalene, 16 at the time, recalls not feeling well when she popped over to visit Roseline.

She said: “We were very close and had a great ­relationship. She begged me to go because it was her boyfriend that was playing at the party.

“She said, ‘If you don’t go my mum will not let me go’. I would spoil her fun if I didn’t go.”

Reluctantly, Magdalene agreed and they set off with Roseline’s boyfriend and Magdalene’s brother Stephen.

The house was packed with around 200 people and the party was in full swing.

Magdalene and Roseline danced on the second floor, others partied on the third floor and people spilled out to chat on the narrow staircase.

“There was a party atmosphere, it was filled with young people laughing and dancing. They were playing lovers rock and everyone was singing. It was a lovely party vibe.

“At around 4am, someone came in and said there’s a small fire in the kitchen and everyone has to leave,” Magdalene recalls.

“I assumed it was a kitchen fire and the party was over. He closed the door but when we opened the door to leave all we could see was thick black smoke and we realised we needed to get out.”

As the gravity of the situation sunk in, people started to panic.

“You could hear the screams and scrambling,” she says.

“The only way to escape was to jump through the window on the first floor.

“People started climbing over each other. Roseline said she was going back for her boyfriend. That was the last time we saw her alive.”

Fearing for her life, Magdalene jumped out of the second-storey window. When she looked up at the window, smoke billowing out, she hoped she might see her sister close behind.

“I could hear the screaming and I remember asking for my sister,” she says tearfully.

It wasn’t until she was checked over at a hospital that Magdalene was told she was pregnant with daughter Rosalyn, named after Roseline, and who is now 39.

“I remember thinking, ‘God please don’t forsake me’ when I jumped. My faith has carried me through ­whatever I have experienced in life.”

The youngest victim was Andrew Gooding who was 14. Host Yvonne died as did her brother Paul, 22.

The disaster claimed a 14th victim two years later when 20-year-old Anthony Berbeck took his own life in 1983 because of what an inquest judge called “trauma brought on by the fire”.

Initially the police said they thought the party may have been firebombed.

The racist far-right National Front was popular in parts of London at the time.

But when no arrests were made,­ survivors claimed officers started treating them as suspects – and the community became angry.

The New Cross Massacre Action Committee was founded by the late Darcus Howe and John La Rose.

It organised The Black People’s Day of Action march and 20,000 people took to the streets of London on March 2.

Chants on the day included “13 dead and nothing said”.

Magdalene was too poorly to attend but Oleander Agbetu, a friend of Roseline’s, went along. Oleander was supposed to go to the party but it clashed with a family bash.

“This is one of the most tragic, unsolved mysteries of all time,” the 58-year-old says.

“I’m not saying it’s a racist attack but the way the police handled it was racist. Families were treated as suspects and they weren’t interested in finding the perpetrators.

“If it was a group of white young people who had perished in a fire like this they would have found out who was behind it. We were not taken­ ­seriously as a community.”