The night that 13 black teenagers died

The issue of the 13 teenagers, all black, who died in a fire at New Cross, south-east London, 20 years ago, keeps coming back. I have received a third letter from the police, inviting me to their offices to be interviewed. Yet I had said - and publicly - that I had nothing to offer, because I was not at the party. Months ago, the police pursued my daughter at London Weekend Television in an effort to locate me.

I was elected by a general assembly of 300 people, who met weekly after the fire, to organise a demonstration. They wanted to protest against the police theory of how the fire started, and against the failure of the authorities, including Margaret Thatcher and the Queen, to pay their respects, as is traditional after such a huge tragedy.

The demonstration was held on a weekday, yet more than 10,000 people turned up - an indication of the depth of feeling in the black community. Coaches came from all major cities in the UK, including Liverpool and Southampton. Within a couple of months, the Brixton riots took place, and it was clear to all that the one had influenced the other. The Daily Mail demanded that the police ask me to state where I was during every second of the Brixton riots. I gained a pariah status, which, it seems, persists in some quarters.

Three organisations were formed to deal with the blaze and its aftermath - one of them to raise funds to assist with funeral expenses. We monitored in detail what the police were doing. It was the very first time in our history as black people that we had made such a dramatic or organised intervention in the politics of this country.

The fire broke out as 16-year-old Yvonne Ruddock was holding a birthday party at her home. The very first officer on the scene told Yvonne's mother that a man had been seen throwing a petrol bomb through a window on the ground floor; the same man was seen also running away from the house. Just beneath the window was a settee, which caught fire.

Days before the party, Conservative MPs in the Midlands had announced a campaign against black house parties, claiming they were too noisy. This was picked up by right-wing organisations all over England. Deptford, where the party took place, was a hotbed of racialism. So everything seemed to fall into place.

But a new officer came in to lead the investigation. He had another theory. The kids had got into a fight, he said, and one of them set fire to the house, went up to the top floor and died there.

Thereafter, we were offered more theories. Mrs Ruddock's boyfriend's brother, the police said, had a domestic row and burnt the place down. He was brought back from the United States, to no avail. Then there was the nail polish theory: Yvonne Ruddock had been decorating her nails and the nail polish remover fell on the carpet and somehow exploded. The latest theory involves matches. Some kid had been playing with matches and set the place on fire.

The police are recommending a new inquest. The local coroner said she would rather have a judicial inquiry.

There the issue stands. Currently, the police are disowning the previous theories. They tell us they cannot be responsible for them. We have had five theories in all. I would not be surprised if we are garlanded before the end of the day with a sixth, a seventh or an eighth theory.

I say only this: I had no part in any of those theories and therefore have refused to attend any investigative interview.

Should there be a judicial inquiry, I will arm myself with legal representation and join the merry dance. And I am still committed to the bomb theory, because it was formed in all innocence of its huge implications. It was only when black people responded that the theory changed.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, And men shall speak unto men