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Christine McCaughan speaks for the first time on The Crypt restaurant fire that killed her mother, brother and sister in Dover in 1977

By Rachael Woods

A teenager who escaped from a restaurant inferno that killed her mum and siblings has broken decades of silence to share her heartbreaking story.

Christine McCaughan, 56, was 14-years-old when flames swept through The Crypt restaurant in Bench Street, Dover, in the early hours of March 27, 1977, killing six people in her home above it, as well as leading fireman John Sharp.

The thriving steakhouse owned by Rabb Inns and run by her father Alec Clay, housed a cavernous basement restaurant, together with a series of bars, including the popular Duck Bar.

Christine and her brother with their foster parents
Christine and her brother with their foster parents

A labyrinth-like building with the medieval crypt underneath, its upper floors were filled with a series of rooms with steps between them and included a manager's office and another flat above the family's own.

The Anglo-Indian Clay family lay sleeping above the Duck Bar in the four-storey building as the blaze broke out in the kitchen several storeys below them.

The family had enjoyed a meal of steak and chips after the restaurant had closed, instead of their staple dish of curry that evening, Christine recalls.

Christine, her parents and brothers Lionel, 11, Shane, six, and sisters Antionette, seven, and 18-month-old Charlotte, were oblivious to the danger as thick smoke began winding its way up the stairs.

It was Lionel who first alerted Christine, with her sibling insisting that there was smoke coming through the carpet.

"I opened the door and I was immediately hit by dark, thick, swirling smoke that had risen to the ceiling..." - Christine McCaughan

"I told him to shut up and go back to bed at first," she recalls, but when he continued to complain she investigated and was shocked to see wisps of smoke curling around the floor.

By now her dad was awake and he bolted downstairs in the direction of the kitchen instructing his young family to wait in the hallway.

As Christine waited with her family for her dad to return, time passed and the smoke was growing thicker by the minute.

By now her mum Marion, 32, an asthmatic, was coughing badly as she talked in Indian dialect to 'aunt Phyllis'. Family friend Phyllis Conlon, 43, was staying that night along with grand-daughter Janusia Ashton, five.

"Dad's not coming back, we have to go," Christine said as she begged her mum to move, only to hear her insist: "Your father said that we have got to wait here."

The Crypt restaurant in the 1970s, which has since been demolished
The Crypt restaurant in the 1970s, which has since been demolished

Christine went up a couple of steps and through another door to the family's dining room where she found there was no smoke and she grabbed her little brother Lionel. She told her mum to move up to the dining room where it was safe but she refused.

"Mum was a traditional Indian woman and would always do what dad said," Christine remembers.

She managed to prise Antoinette, seven, away but baby Charlotte and six-year-old Shane were screaming and crying and wouldn't be parted from mum, Phyllis and her grand-daughter.

In the dining room fire crews had reached the upper windows where Christine was desperately trying to pull up the sash that had become stuck.

The fireman on the other side was able to dislodge the sash window but Christine at first refused to step into the bucket attached to the ladder.

"They told me not to open the dining room door," she said. "But I wanted to call my mum again and tell her to come to the dining room.

"I opened the door and I was immediately hit by dark, thick, swirling smoke that had risen to the ceiling. It was burning my nostrils, my throat and my eyes as I was shouting for mum and coughing, but I couldn't hear or see anything," she said.

When Christine was brought to safety she was placed in a black cab outside with her brother Lionel and sister Antoinette.

"I saw my dad come out onto the pavement with my sister Charlotte in his arms. He was hysterical and was trying to give her mouth to mouth resuscitation.

"Then I saw two fireman move my mum, one holding her arms and one her legs. They put her into the doorway of Geerings [stationers] and covered her with a blanket. They didn't even attempt resuscitation so I knew from that moment I had lost her," said Christine.

"They didn't even attempt resuscitation so I knew from that moment I had lost her..." - Christine McCaughan remembers seeing her mother brought out of the building

Live-in nanny and restaurant worker Anita Lee, 19, also perished in the blaze that night, bringing the death toll to seven.

The family are buried in St James' cemetery, Dover.

The Clays were eventually re-housed in council accommodation in Dryden Road, Dover, but the family broke down and St Edmunds School pupil Christine, who had already spent spells in care, went to live at the children's home Alderton House in Walmer.

She describes her time there as happy and she was later fostered full-time by a loving couple in Surrey, where she was very content. Christine refused their offer of adoption insisting she would only ever have one mum, although she remains in close contact with the pair.

From left to Lionel, Christine, son Brynley and Shane on Christine's wedding day
From left to Lionel, Christine, son Brynley and Shane on Christine's wedding day

Today Christine, who works at Tesco, Whitfield, is married to Shane, 43, with the couple, of Church Path, Deal tying the knot in 2011. It was the second marriage for Christine, who has a son Brynley, 32.

Fractured family relationships mean that she is estranged from her dad and sister Antionette, although she still sees brother Lionel. All of the Clays have remained in Kent.

Counselling has helped her to come to terms with what has happened, although the antiques collector admits she has a tendency to hoard items, with her possessions increasing her sense of security.

Outwardly bright and bubbly the customer assistant at Tesco enjoys a full life.

She said: "I will never forget that night or the The Crypt. I remember every room and every detail of its layout as if it was yesterday."

Christine was prompted to contact the East Kent Mercury, KentOnline' sister paper, after our report that councillors Graham Wanstall and Ann Burke had set up The Crypt Group the aim of installing a commemorative plaque to honour those who lost their lives in the fire.

Leading fireman John Sharp, who lost his life in the blaze, was awarded the Queen's Commendation for Brave Conduct in December 1977, alongside firemen David Dadd, Kenneth Fairchild and James Hogben, with details published in the London Gazette.

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