The Happy Land Social Club, pictured after a deadly blaze killed 87 people in 1990. New York City officials said the club was operating illegally and had no sprinklers, fire exits, emergency lights, or exit signs.(Photo: NFPA)
The Happy Land Social Club Fire
A disgruntled patron makes good on a threat, and starts a deadly blaze that shocked New York
NFPA Journal®, January/February 2013
"I’ll be back." With those words, Julio Gonzalez sealed the fate of 87 patrons of the Happy Land Social Club.
In the wee hours of March 25, 1990, the club, located in the East Tremont section of the Bronx in New York City, was packed with young Honduran immigrants celebrating Carnival. Gonzalez, a 36-year-old unemployed Cuban refugee, was ejected from the club after a fight with his former girlfriend, Lydia Feliciano. Gonzalez found a plastic container and filled it with $1 worth of gasoline at a nearby gas station. He returned to the club, poured the gas on the floor of the club’s only open entrance, threw in some lit matches, and left. He later returned and watched as firefighters battled the ensuing blaze, according to The New York Times.
The Times reported that the club had been shut down by inspectors because it was a "firetrap,” in the blunt assessment of Charles Smith, Jr., the city’s buildings commissioner. Officials said the club had no sprinklers, fire exits, emergency lights, or exit signs, and that it had reopened illegally. After entering the front door, patrons went down a narrow hallway past a ticket window and coat check, then into a small room with a dance floor and a bar. Stairs at the back of the first floor led to another dance floor and a bar on the floor above, where most of the patrons had congregated.
After Gonzalez dropped his matches, flames spread quickly from the entrance through the first floor and up the stairs. The club filled with smoke, asphyxiating victims "so rapidly that they were found with drinks in their hands,” according to the Times. A firefighter who responded to the blaze was quoted as saying that some of the victims "looked like they were sleeping." Others, he said, looked like they were in shock. "There were some people holding hands. There were some people who looked like they were trying to commiserate and hug each other."
Many fell where they were, piling up on the dance floor, while others tried to reach the exit. Firefighters found 68 bodies upstairs and 19 on the stairs or the ground floor. Only five people managed to escape. One of them was Lydia Feliciano.
On November 15, 1990, Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson ruled that the building’s three landlords were not criminally responsible for the fire, noting that criminal liability probably rested with Elias Colon, the owner and operator of the club, who died in the fire. Two months later, however, New York City Mayor David Dinkins filed misdemeanor charges against the other two landlords. Both eventually pleaded guilty "to failing to install a proper sprinkler system and to illegally converting the premises into a two-story social club,” even though they "contended that they were not guilty because they were unaware the building had been converted,” according to The New York Times.
Gonzalez was arrested, charged, and convicted on 87 counts of murder, 87 counts of arson, and assault in August 1991. He was sentenced to 25 years to life on each count, and is eligible for parole in 2015.
— Kathleen Robinson