Author(s): Kathleen Robinson Published on November 1, 2012

The 1986 Dupont Plaza Hotel Fire
Puerto Rico fire is the second-deadliest hotel fire in U.S. history

NFPA Journal®, November/December 2012

Sometime after 3 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, 1986, a fire broke out in a ballroom of the Dupont Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Despite hotel employees’ attempts to extinguish it, the fire spread rapidly to the ballroom’s two-story foyer, which shared a glass wall with the hotel lobby and casino on the floor above.

 


Hotel guests await rescue from the roof of the 17-story tower at the Dupont Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1986. (Photo: AP/Wide World)

The NFPA investigation report of the fire estimates that there were approximately 150 people in the casino at the time of the fire. Apparently, many failed to react to the first signs of smoke or verbal warnings of fire, although a few people “did begin to exit based on these cues,” according to the NFPA report.

One visitor was playing blackjack when he heard a loud explosion at approximately 3:30 p.m. He saw white smoke through the glass partition of the ballroom but continued playing cards until he saw light black smoke coming from the casino’s air conditioning vents. It wasn’t until a woman entered the casino moments later yelling “Fire!” that the gambler finally collected his money and began to walk toward the exit door to the lobby. He saw fire in the lobby and broke a casino window to escape, but not before seeing a flame front move toward him and engulf a friend of his, who, the man said, “ignited from the waist up.” Investigators concluded that the fire swept through the lobby and the length of the casino in as little as eight minutes after it was discovered.

The hotel included an unsprinklered 17-story tower that housed 423 guest rooms. The fire alarm system in the tower was not working, and many guests were not aware of the fire until they saw or smelled it, heard someone shouting “Fire,” or heard firefighters responding. Once they became aware of the blaze, many moved to their balconies to await rescue. Others made their way to the roof, where they were rescued by helicopters from the Puerto Rican Police, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Navy, and the National Guard.

By the time firefighters extinguished the blaze that evening, 97 people were dead: 84 in the casino, 5 in the lobby, 3 in an elevator, and 2 at a pool-side bar outside the hotel. Only one guest died in the tower. More than 140 were injured. It was the second-deadliest hotel fire in U.S. history, surpassed only by the Winecoff Hotel fire in Atlanta in 1946.

Within weeks, three men were arrested for starting the fire. All were members of the Teamsters union and were involved in negotiating a new contract with hotel management for 250 of the hotel’s 450 employees. On the day of the fire, the union had rejected the final proposal offered by management and voted to strike. The three men were found guilty of starting the fire in a pile of furniture stored in the ballroom. In April 1987, a federal judge sentenced each man to 99 years in prison.

— Kathleen Robinson

NFPA (National Fire Protection Association)
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