and JASON BENNETTO
It had been a normal evening at the Palace nightclub in Blackpool. About 600 clubbers were dancing the night away. Among those enjoying the club's "Red Hot" evening were Daniel Ashton, 17, his girlfriend Vanessa Watson and Andrew Aspden.
Some of those dancing frenetically in the heat and lights were undoubtedly on an artificial high. As in every dance club in the country, the rave drug ecstasy, and a host of other stimulants, were almost certainly available. With "Es" you can feel good and dance without a break for hour after hour.
Daniel's mother, Heather, was sure her sports-loving son was not involved in anything illegal. "He hated everything about drugs. He used to call drug addicts and pushers 'the scum of the earth'," she said. Daniel's sister-in-law, Michelle Wainwright, added: "He was a bright, breezy boy with lots of friends who looked up to him. He had never taken drugs to anyone's knowledge. He was a bright lad." He rarely went to nightclubs and have was only at the Palace for a special party, said the family.
Yet by 11.30 that night, Daniel was lying unconscious on the pavement outside the club, his girlfriend and an ambulance crew by his side. Minutes later Vanessa, 16, collapsed. Andrew, 16, also needed medical treatment.
Eleven hours later, Daniel was dead. His girlfriend was in a stable condition last night, while his friend is "poorly but stable". Police believe Daniel took ecstasy and probably amphetamines, also known as "speed", as well. Officers were last night awaiting the results of a post mortem examination of Daniel and the outcome of tests on ecstasy tablets believed to be similar to the ones taken by the three friends.
If the results are positive, Daniel will be one of the hundreds of thousands of young people who every weekend take ecstasy. He could also prove to be the 51st person officially recorded has having died from the side effects of the drug since 1990.
Regular ravers at the Palace yesterday said that ecstasy had become an essential ingredient in the Blackpool club scene, but that it was by no means an epidemic.
Daniel being given the drug would not have been an unusual sight to club- goers at the Palace. It is a transaction conducted in a corner of the five bars or two dance floors, and out of sight of club staff. A local student said: "The Palace is by no means the worst. Those that really want to get heavily into drugs are more likely to go to Manchester or Liverpool."
The Palace is a modern discotheque near Blackpool Tower. The club boasts three lighting rigs and a diner, but its reputation for drug deals is not as bad as many similar clubs across the country.
In February, Darren Mulholland, 23, from Cumbria, died in the Venue club in Blackpool. He had taken cannabis and Benzodiazepines, as well as ecstasy before dancing continuously in the hot and crowded club. All his major organs failed. The club has since closed.
Detectives yesterday said the Palace could not be classed as a comparably busy site for dealers.
"Ecstasy is now part and parcel of the club scene throughout Lancashire," one detective said. "Blackpool naturally has problems with visitors, especially at this time of the year with day and weekend visitors to the illuminations.
"It is a serious problem, but this is not anything on the scale of, say, Manchester two years ago."
Blackpool club owners yesterday said it was impossible to keep drugs off their premises. Said one: "Warders cannot keep drugs out of prisons, so how can we be expected to?"
Brian Booth, owner of Jokers club, said: "At one time we were known as a promiscuous town. Now we are a drugs town."
The Palace was closed last night as First Leisure Corporation, its owners, expressed "deepest sympathy" for Daniel's family.
The company's director of operations, Michael Payne, has strict policies to prevent drugs or "undesirable" people entering the club.
Lancashire drug squad officers were last night still searching the club. Detective Superintendent Bob Denmark, who is heading the inquiry, said that anyone who had taken illegal substances at the club on Thursday night should seek medical advice.