Dupont Plaza Fire Survivors Still Trying to Come to Terms With Tragedy

Associated Press

In his nightmare, Nick Perrotti is trapped in a gas chamber-like room filled with screaming people trying to escape the billowing black smoke. Desperate, he smashes three plate-glass windows and helps others out before diving headfirst through the broken pane.

That flashback from the New Year’s Eve fire at the Dupont Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, torments Perrotti again and again as he lies in a hospital bed with injuries suffered in the blaze.

Asked how he escaped from the flaming casino, Perrotti replied, “That’s what I keep asking myself.”


The 36-year-old wholesale florist from New Haven, Conn., has wondered why he lived while friends like Linda Berkowski of Beacon Falls, Conn.; Al Cohen of Hamden, Conn.; Susan Lawrence of Shelton, Conn., and Bob Melillo of Cheshire, Conn., died.

He has had plenty of time to recall the fire, which killed 96 people at the beachfront hotel on Jan. 31. Ninety-one of the victims died in the casino.

Broken Back, Leg

“I’m lying flat on my back, and I can’t roll over,” Perrotti said in a telephone interview from a New Haven hospital.

Perrotti, who broke his back, a leg and his pelvis and slashed his face and hands on the broken glass, expects to stay in the hospital about three more weeks, but his doctors say he won’t return to work until the summer.

Psychiatrists say survivors of disasters often experience a sense of guilt, accompanied by flashbacks and nightmares. “It’s not unusual for people to react in this way,” said Dr. Stephen M. Sonnenberg, a Washington specialist in post-traumatic stress disorders.

Dr. Bonnie Green, a psychologist at the Univerisity of Cincinnati’s Medical School who interviewed more than 100 survivors of the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire in Kentucky in 1977, said the majority were fine after two years.

Those who had witnessed grotesque deaths, however, were more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs than those who fled the scene with no horrible memories, she said.

Others Haunted by Disaster

Like Perrotti, other survivors of the Dupont Plaza fire said in interviews that they were haunted by the disaster. Most have tried to put the pieces of their lives back together.

Pat Massaro, 55, an electrical contractor from Hamden, Conn., attends therapy sessions three times a week to relieve the pain of a vertebra he crushed in a leap from the casino.

His mental anguish has been eased by the passage of time, Massaro said, but he was overcome by sadness at a recent Thursday night poker game. Three of the regulars were missing--victims of the fire.

“I’m jumpy whenever I hear anyone holler or scream,” said Hugh Kurtz, 40, of Cheshire, Conn., who spent frantic hours as the fire burned wondering whether he would ever again see his wife, two teen-age daughters and son. They were rescued by firefighters.

“We downplay it as much as possible,” Kurtz said. The family’s belongings from the hotel room were shipped last week, but Kurtz said electronic equipment, a camera and jewelry were missing.

Michael Wolf, 46, a bicycle store owner from Bloomfield, Conn., recalled his thoughts on the day of the fire. “I made a deal with God that if he let my girls out, I didn’t want anything else from him.” Wolf’s teen-age daughters survived.

More Safety-Conscious

Since the fire, Wolf persuaded his Rotary Club to donate money for a movie on fire safety. He is also more conscious about hotels.

“I won’t go into a hotel unless it has automatic sprinklers,” he said, noting that the Dupont Plaza, like 95% of the hotels in the United States, did not have such equipment. Wolf won’t stay in a room higher than the third floor.

More than 140 people were injured in the fire, most suffering from smoke inhalation, cuts and bruises.

John Benevento of Hamden, Conn., broke his feet. “He’s doing very well . . . having therapy and so forth,” said his wife, Joan. The family had some “minor concerns” about their 7-year-old son’s behavior after the fire, although he seems to have adjusted over the last few weeks, she said.

She said she stays in contact with Diane Melillo of Cheshire, Conn., who lost her husband, Bob. Melillo is helping to run the family’s foreign-car repair business.

Lawsuits Filed

Three men, all hotel workers, have been charged with murder and arson in the fire. The three have pleaded innocent and are to be tried in federal court April 27 on the arson charges.

About 40 lawsuits have been filed by survivors or their families, according to John P. Coale, a lawyer who represents several clients. Legal aspects of the case will take no less than 18 months, he said.

A woman who answered the telephone at the Dupont Plaza’s office in San Juan said the guests’ belongings had been shipped to them. She had no comment on the lawsuits and refused to give her name.