A fast-moving fire swept through the Happy Land social club in the Bronx early Sunday, turning a night of dancing into a night of death. Eighty-seven people perished.
By late in the afternoon, police had arrested a 36-year-old man and charged him with multiple counts of arson and murder. The suspect, Julio Gonzalez, had allegedly fought with his ex-girlfriend, a club employee, before the blaze.
The fire was the worst in the nation in 13 years and the deadliest in New York since the Triangle Shirt Waist Co. factory disaster claimed more than 140 lives exactly 79 years ago.
City officials said the 4-year-old club, frequented mostly by Honduran and Dominican immigrants, had been ordered closed in December for numerous building and fire code violations. It was operating illegally when the fire erupted around 3:30 a.m. EST. The flames were so intense at the front door of the club that firefighters responding from an engine company less than two blocks away were unable to gain immediate entrance.
"The fire was roaring out of the front two doors," said New York City Fire Commissioner Carlos Rivera. Assistant Fire Commissioner Robert Unger said the intensity of the blaze and its rapid spread fueled suspicions of arson. The blaze was brought under control by 6 a.m.
When firefighters finally managed to enter the club, they discovered a horrifying sight on the second floor: 69 bodies, many stacked on top of each other. Most were dead of smoke inhalation. Some had been trampled.
"It gave me flashbacks of Vietnam," said firefighter Frank Curtin. Deputy Assistant Fire Chief Ralph Palmer, a 28-year veteran of the department, added: "I can't think of anything in my experience as traumatic as this."
Many of the victims had tried to make their way down a stairway so narrow that only one person at a time could go up or down. There were no windows to use as emergency exits.
"Most of the bodies were in dance clothes," said Christopher McCarthy, a specialist with the city's Emergency Medical Services. "I saw wall-to-wall bodies . . . an indication of mass confusion and panic," he told the Associated Press.
A Red Cross worker said some of the victims broke a hole through a wall to an adjoining hall in a desperate attempt to save their lives.
Firefighters said that many of the victims were huddled together and appeared to be mostly in their 30s or younger. Sixty-one of the people killed were men, 26 were women.
Some of the bodies that were upstairs were still seated upright at the tables.
"There was only one entrance--the front door," said a firefighter at the firehouse whose engines first responded to the call. "There's no back door, no fire escape, no nothing. Once the front door is on fire, you're roasted."
Fire Department spokesman Efrain Parrilla said the fire did not burn beyond the first floor but sent thick, billowing smoke up to the second floor.
"It is an understatement to say this is a tragedy of immense proportions," said Mayor David N. Dinkins, who rushed to the scene shortly after the fire erupted. As he spoke, firefighters were pulling bodies from the building onto the street.
Only two women and one man apparently survived the blaze. The man, the club's disc jockey, reportedly staggered out of the club with his clothes sticking to his burned skin. He was listed in critical condition at a nearby hospital late Sunday.
"He walked toward me. He couldn't talk. . . . All we could do was treat him," said Emergency Medical Services Lt. Roy David. The other two survivors were an elderly woman and the wife of the club's owner, police spokesman Lt. Raymond O'Donnell said.
Police Commissioner Lee Brown told an evening news conference that Gonzalez, an unemployed Cuban immigrant who lives in the Bronx, had a dispute with his ex-girlfriend, the club's hatcheck attendant, and was ejected from the building. "We believe (that) is the motive in this case," he said. The checker left before the fire, which began inside the entrance near the coat check area, Brown said.
A police spokesman said Gonzalez came to the United States in 1980 during the Mariel boatlift, which brought 125,000 Cuban immigrants.
Investigators had spent much of the day searching for clues to arson in the charred shell of the small, two-story building in an impoverished Latino neighborhood near the Bronx Zoo.
Buildings Commissioner Charles Smith said that the cramped club, which measures about 20 feet wide and 60 feet long, had received an eviction notice in January because it had improper exits and was in the process of being condemned.
New York has more than 700 neighborhood social clubs, many of them catering to patrons of particular ethnic origins. For many poor immigrants, they serve as a home away from home--a place to meet friends, dance or play cards. Some are also known to attract gambling, drugs and prostitution.
Many of the clubs serve liquor even though they lack formal licenses. Often, they do not conform to building codes. Six people died in a 1988 fire at another Bronx club, five died in a Brooklyn club fire in 1985 and 25 were killed in another Bronx fire in 1976.
The city has ordered 173 clubs to close because of various violations. Dinkins, appearing at the news conference with Brown, said the city would crack down on illegal clubs, including dispatching 20 teams of police and firefighters to make sure closed clubs are not operating.
But similar city efforts in the past have been futile, said one fire official who declined to be identified. "We shut them down one day and (they are back) the next day," he said.
"People are literally taking their lives in their hands at these clubs," said Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer.
"I don't know what it's going to take--an army--to stop them from going to places like this," said Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) after visiting the scene Sunday. Serrano was recently elected to represent the Bronx.
By daylight, the Happy Land social club--part of a row of small shops and offices--was a charred wreck. Inside, firefighters and investigators stood amid blackened beams as they surveyed the damage, searching for arson clues.
The "Happy Land" sign over the entrance was partially burned, but ironically a yellow happy face in the center of the sign remained unscathed.
Hundreds of spectators stood behind police barricades watching the scene. Only a few hundred feet away, at a temporary morgue set up in Public School 67, friends and relatives crowded the small schoolyard waiting to gain entrance to identify victims.
Many of them carried photographs. Several wept openly in grief. In the early afternoon, one woman began shaking and screaming and was carried away on the shoulders of three men.
Noel Marquz, 22, and his pregnant wife, Katherine, 23, stood outside the entrance of the school, waiting to find out if three of their friends were among the dead.
"I'm afraid they went there last night," Marquz said.
He said the club, which catered mainly to Hondurans, drew patrons from as far away as New Jersey, across the Hudson River. "It was a regular disco, and not a good one," he added. "It was a place where you met friends."
Benito Mejia, 32, had tears in his eyes as he spoke of a friend who had perished in the fire. "I'm feeling very terrible, very terrible," he said. "I might have been at the club with him. Thank God I wasn't. My sister had a baptismal party last night."
Jose Cerrato, 30, called himself one of the lucky ones. He had been at the club most of the night and decided to leave less than a quarter of an hour before the fire started.
Cerrato described the atmosphere in the club as animated and amiable when he left. "There were no problems of any nature," he said.
Five firefighters, including a battalion chief who broke his leg, were taken to Jacobi Hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation. At least six other firefighters were treated for minor smoke inhalation at the scene.
The disaster is almost certain to renew pressure for fire inspection reforms.
The 1911 Triangle Shirt Waist Co. fire, which burned through the top three floors of a 10-story building in lower Manhattan, brought about the first major reforms in the city's fire codes.
In the Triangle fire, many young seamstresses were trapped behind a locked door in their sweatshop. While firefighters watched helplessly, some seamstresses jumped to their deaths to escape the raging inferno.
The Happy Land fire was the most deadly in the nation since 164 people perished in a blaze at the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Ky., in 1977, and the worst in U.S. territory since the loss of 96 lives during a 1986 fire at the DuPont Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
WORST U.S. FIRES Here is a list of some of the worst fires, in terms of lives lost, in the United States and its possessions: March 25, 1990--New York (Bronx), social club, 87 dead. Dec. 31, 1986--San Juan, Puerto Rico, hotel, 96 dead. Nov. 8, 1982--Biloxi, Miss., county jail, 29 dead. Jan. 9, 1981--Keansburg, N.J., boarding home, 30 dead. Dec. 4, 1980--Harrison, N.Y., hotel, 26 dead. Nov. 21, 1980--Las Vegas, hotel, 84 dead. June 26, 1977--Columbia, Tenn., jail, 42 dead. May 28, 1977--Southgate, Ky., nightclub, 164 dead.