SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Some 500 mourners attended a memorial service Thursday on the first anniversary of the Dupont Plaza Hotel arson fire that killed 97 people, and a report said fire safety is still lax at some island hotels.
'Those hours of tears, cries for help, and sobbing can never be forgotten,' Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon told mourners gathered for the 90-minute ecumenical ceremony under overcast skies at San Juan's Luis Munoz Rivera Park.
'Today, on the first anniversary of the tragedy of the Dupont Plaza fire, which destroyed our people's happiness on Dec. 31, 1986, I want to share with all relatives, friends and neighbors ... of those who died the sadness of their absence,' Hernandez Colon said.
The fire, set by three hotel employees, killed 97 people and injured about 140. 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.
The San Juan Star reported that some of San Juan's major hotels still lack fire safety equipment and proper emergency exits to roofs and have not developed fire training and evacuation plans.
Fire Department inspection reports said 14 hotels had shown improved safety since the New Year's Eve tragedy, but violations at some hotels included poor maintenance of extinguishers and hoses, blockage of escape routes, and absence of alarms, the newspaper said.
The commonwealth-owned Caribe Hilton, the worst offender, had corrected only 58 of 137 violations noted by inspectors last January. Gunther Mainka, the hotel's resident manager, called the assessment unfair.
Damages from lawsuits filed in San Juan's U.S. District Court exceeded $3 billion by the filing deadline at Thursday noon, said Dan Abel, a staff lawyer on a coordinating committee for plaintiffs. A $900-million class-action suit was filed late Wednesday.
Some 1,300 plaintiffs and about 200 defendants are involved in the case, Abel said.
Wednesday, commonwealth prosecutors 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 hospital in his hometown of Boston March 10.
A federal judge in June sentenced Escudero Aponte, a hotel maintenance worker, to 99 years in prison for arson and one count of first-degree murder after he pleaded guilty.
Francisco Rivera Lopez, a bartender, pleaded guilty to an arson charge and received a 99-year sentence. Armando Jimenez Rivera, a bartender's assistant, 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.