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Dupont Plaza fire continues to haunt Puerto Rico

By IAN SIMPSON

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- One year ago, flames raged through the Dupont Plaza Hotel, killing 97 people in the second deadliest fire in U.S. history. Rescue worker Francisco Pumarejo still is haunted by the tragedy.

As Pumarejo, 22, and hundreds of other firefighters and rescue workers battled the New Year's Eve arson blaze, his mother, grandmother, brother and uncle perished in the flames and smoke that engulfed the hotel's casino.

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'For such a tragedy to happen in the beloved holiday season when everybody is celebrating, you can never forget it,' said Pumarejo, the interim Civil Defense chief in the San Juan suburb of Bayamon.

An ecumenical service was scheduled today in San Juan's Luis Munoz Rivera Park in remembrance of those killed in the disaster, which spawned a $1 billion lawsuit and criticism of fire protection in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, and hotels nationwide.

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Wednesday, prosecutors in Puerto Rico charged Hector Escudero Aponte, who set the blaze, with a 97th count of first-degree murder. He was accused of killing Kenneth Johnson, who died of fire injuries in a Boston hospital March 10.

The Dupont Plaza today stands empty on the Condado tourist strip, surrounded by chain-link fences topped with barbed wire. Laborers still work to repair the damage and taxi drivers say the hotel is a favorite drive-by for tourists.

Among Puerto Ricans, memories of the horror fade slowly. But Pumarejo is confident his family has gone to a higher place.

'Where they are, it can't be better. There, they lack for nothing,' he said.

The tragic blaze was started about 3:15 p.m. Dec. 31, 1986, by three hotel employees who used cooking fuel to set ballroom furniture on fire. The fire started minutes after Teamster's Union hotel workers voted to reject a management proposal for a new contract.

Teamster officials denied involvement and government investigators have uncovered no union ties to the perpetrators.

The flames and smoke spread quickly to the casino one floor above where 91 people died, according to a report by the federal Center for Fire Research. Six people died elsewhere in the hotel and about 140 people were injured.

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The blaze was the second-worst hotel fire in U.S. history, surpassed only by the Winecoff Hotel fire in Atlanta Dec. 7, 1946, in which 119 people died.

A federal judge in June sentenced Escudero Aponte, a maintenance worker at the Dupont Plaza, to 99 years in prison for arson and first-degree murder after he pleaded guilty.

Francisco Rivera Lopez, a bartender who persuaded Escudero Aponte to set the fire, also pleaded guilty to similar charges and received a 99-year sentence. Armando Jimenez Rivera, a bartender's assistant who shielded Escudero Aponte, was sentenced to 75 years in prison after pleading guilty to arson.

Jimenez Rivera and Rivera Lopez also have pleaded guilty in Commonwealth court to reduced charges of 96 counts of second-degree murder, arson and conspiracy. They were sentenced in June to 96 life terms in prison. Escudero Aponte still awaits trial on 96 first-degree murder charges in Commonwealth court.

A report by the National Fire Protection Association said there were no sprinklers in most of the Dupont Plaza, there were no fire detection systems and the building's design allowed the fire to spread quickly.

The Puerto Rico Fire Service has beefed up its manpower and equipment this fiscal year, following a 50 percent increase in its budget. Hotels must install sprinklers under a two-year Commonwealth schedule that began in mid-November.

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Legislation that would require U.S. hotels to be equipped with sprinklers is now before the Congress. Testimony has shown that up to 85 percent of U.S. hotels lack sprinklers.

The hotel fire spawned a federal lawsuit involving about 200 defendants and 1,100 plaintiffs, with damages placed 'much in excess of $1 billion,' according to Francisco Troncoso, a member of a coordinating committee for the plaintiffs.

A trial has been set for June 1, 1989, in U.S. District Court in San Juan.

The legal tussle has produced a minor economic boom in Puerto Rico. The scores of lawyers involved are spending more than $1 million annually on apartments, offices, hotel rooms, computers, office equipment and personnel, Troncoso said.

Lorenzo Ramirez, the architect overseeing about $6.5 million in construction repairs at the hotel, said the hotel may be ready to reopen in June.

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