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Arson fire kills 87 in worse mass slaying in U.S. history

By WILLIAM K. RASHBAUM

NEW YORK -- An arson fire swept through an overcrowded and illegal Bronx social club early Sunday, killing at least 87 people in the worst mass slaying in U.S. history and the deadliest New York blaze since the Triangle Shirt Waist factory disaster exactly 79 years earlier.

Julio Gonzalez, 36, of the Bronx, was arrested at his home and charged with arson and 87 counts of murder after witnesses, including his girlfriend, implicated him, police spokesman Lt. Raymond O'Donnell said.

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Gonzalez, an unemployed Cuban emgire who came to the United States in the Mariel boatlift, set the fire because he had been ejected from the Happy Land social club about 3 a.m. after an argument with his ex-girlfriend, a ticket taker at the night spot, O'Donnell said.

'He is remorseful,' O'Donnell said. 'He has been crying.'

Police and fire officials refused to comment on exactly how the fire was set until the completion of the fire marshal's report, which was expected Monday.

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Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson later said the building owner and club operator also could face charges, including criminal negligence, manslaughter and possibly homicide charges. The club was ordered closed in November 1988, July 1989 and November 1989, he said.

The bodies of 61 men and 26 women, more than half of them under the age of 25, were pulled from the club, which was popular with Honduran and Dominican immigrants. Many of the victims were related.

The fire broke out before 3:41 a.m. at the Happy Land social club in the run-down East Tremont section, near the Bronx Zoo. It was not controlled until about 6 a.m.

'The smoke was so heavy you couldn't see anything,' said Frank Curtin, one of the first firefighters to arrive at the scene. 'We were actually stepping on bodies downstairs before we realized we had people in there.'

Officials called the building housing the social club a 'firetrap.'

'From what I could gather at the scene, there were no windows on the second floor, no adequete secondary means of egress, no way of getting out from the back,' fire department spokesman Efrain Parrilla said.

The fire began near the entrance to the building, by the hatcheck area, Parrilla said. It did not burn beyond the first floor, but filled the second floor with thick smoke.

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Nineteen people were on the first floor and 68 were on the second, 'where there was nowhere to go, no egress, no windows,' Parrilla said.

The 87 dead made the arson fire the worst mass slaying in U.S. history, greatly surpassing the 45 people killed, including 38 elementary school students, on May 18, 1927, by dynamite explosions at the Bath (Mich.) Consolidated School.

The blaze occurred on the 79th anniversary of the 1911 Triangle Shirt Waist factory fire, which killed 145 people in Manhattan and led to major reforms in sweatshop working conditions. Sunday's blaze was the worst fire in New York since then.

The fire was also the most deadly in U.S. territory since 97 people died in the Dupont Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on New Year's Eve 1986, and the worst in the 50 states since 165 were killed in the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Ky., on May 28, 1977.

A visibly upset Mayor David Dinkins, who earlier toured the interior of the building while firefighters pulled bodies out to the street, vowed at a news conference to close all the city's illegal social clubs.

He said police and firefighters immediately began inspecting 173 social clubs that have received orders to vacate to make sure they are closed. Officials said most had probably ignored previous orders to shut down.

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'This was the most horrendous circumstance I've ever viewed,' Dinkins said. 'To go through that building, go upstairs, go and look at all the bodies lined up there, very graphically brought home to me the situation. I'm glad that I went, in the sense that had I not seen it, I don't think I would have fully appreciated it.'

At the scene earlier, Dinkins described how bodies were lined up in rows inside the building, waiting to be counted. 'It's a graphic and sad circumstance,' said the mayor, wearing a white firefighter's hat and coat.

Buildings Commissioner Charles Smith said more than 230 similar social clubs operate throughout the city, adding that the eviction order for the Happy Land club, issued Nov. 1, was still in effect. 'This place, for the number of people that were in it, clearly is inadequate,' Smith said.

Newly named Fire Commissioner Carlos Rivera said when his department's first units arrived, 'the fire was roaring out of the front two doors. The fire spread so rapidly and the heat and smoke probably were the cause of all the fatalities.'

Most of the victims were trapped among a group of tables near a dance floor on the second floor of the two-story brick building and died of smoke inhalation, Ungar said.

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Lt. Roy David of the police Emergency Services Unit was one of the first to enter the building and said the victims were 'huddled together' and looked mostly in their 30s or younger.

'When I first entered the building, there was smoke and people all around. Some were near the door. The ones I found were lying on the ground,' David said.

Firefighter Dan DeFranco added, 'Many of the bodies that were upstairs were still seated upright at tables.'

David said he saw one of the survivors, the club's disc jockey, wandering in the street. 'His clothes were burned, burned away. He was unable to talk,' the fire lieutenant said.

The disc jockey was taken to Bronx Municipal Hospital and listed in guarded condition with burns over 50 percent of his body, police and hospital officials said.

Besides Gonzalez, his ex-girlfriend and the disc jockey, two other people escaped the fire -- an elderly woman and the wife of the club's owner, police spokesman Lt. Raymond O'Donnell said.

Of the other four survivors, Gonzalez's girlfriend was 'unscathed,' O'Donnell said. No information was available other the condition of the elderly woman and the wife of the club's owner. Gonzalez himself was in police custody and was apparently uninjured.

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Six firefighters were brought to local hospitals suffering from smoke inhalation. Five of them were treated and released and the sixth was listed in stable condition, officials said.

Bodies were still being pulled from the 20- by 50-foot club, which had a yellow 'happy face' on its scorched sign and two exit doors, as the sun rose over the city. Bodies lying under pale blue shrouds littered the sidewalk near the club.

Authorities took instant photographs of the bodies and showed them to family members at a nearby school for identification.

By 5:30 p.m., 55 bodies had been identified, said Ellen Borakove, a spokeswoman for the medical examiner's office.

'It's a pretty slow process,' said the Rev. A.B. Duncans of the First Glorious Church, who was consoling relatives of the victims near the school. 'Most of the people are really upset. People are hysterical. It's terrible. We're trying to do what we can.'

At the city morgue in Bellevue Hospital, Roberto Marin, 46, eyes rimmed with red, scoffed at city fire regulations that were supposed to prevent tragedies like the Happy Land fire.

Marin said his cousin, Cruz Robledo Alvarez, 38, had probably died behind the bar he tended on weekends to make extra money. 'They close them down one week, they're open again the next,' he said. 'Nobody seems to care.'

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'The smoke was so heavy you couldn't see anything,' said Frank Curtin, one of the first firefighters to arrive at the scene. 'We were actually stepping on bodies downstairs before we realized we had people in there.'

Officials said the building housing the social club was a 'firetrap.'

'From what I could gather at the scene, there were no windows on the second floor, no adequete secondary means of egress, no way of getting out from the back,' fire department spokesman Efrain Parrilla said.

The fire began near the entrance to the building, by the coat-check area, Parrilla said. It did not burn beyond the first floor, but filled the second floor with thick smoke.

Nineteen people were on the first floor and 68 were on the second, 'where there was nowhere to go, no egress, no windows,' Parrilla said.

The blaze occurred on the 79th anniversary of the 1911 Triangle Shirt Waist factory fire, which killed 145 people in Manhattan and led to major reforms in sweatshop working conditions. Sunday's blaze was the worst fire in New York since then.

The fire was also the most deadly in U.S. territory since 97 people died in the Dupont Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on New Year's Eve 1986, and the worst in the 50 states since 165 were killed in the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Ky., on May 28, 1977.

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Mayor David Dinkins, who toured the interior of the building while firefighters pulled bodies out to the street, said the city had issued an order closing the cramped club in December or January.

'It is an understatement to say that this is a tragedy of immense proportions,' Dinkins said. 'I guess the sad thing about it is that it's the kind of thing that does not have to happen.'

Bodies were lined up in rows inside the building to be counted, Dinkins said. 'It's a graphic and sad circumstance,' said the mayor, wearing a white firefighter's hat and coat.

Buildings Commissioner Charles Smith said more than 700 similar social clubs operate throughout the city and that investigators were trying to determine whether the eviction order for the Happy Land club was still in effect.

'This place, for the number of people that were in it, clearly is inadequate, but we will be searching our records today to determine if anything changed between last December and January and today,' Smith said.

Newly named Fire Commissioner Carlos Rivera said when his department's first units arrived, 'the fire was roaring out of the front two doors. The fire spread so rapidly and the heat and smoke probably were the cause of all the fatalities.'

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Most of the victims were trapped among a group of tables near a dance floor on the second floor of the two-story brick building and died of smoke inhalation, Ungar said.

Lt. Roy David of the police Emergency Services Unit was one of the first to enter the building and said the victims were 'huddled together' and looked mostly in their 30s or younger. 'When I first entered the building, there was smoke and people allaround Some were near the door. The ones I found were lying on the ground,' he said.

Firefighter Dan deFranco added, 'Many of the bodies that were upstairs were still seated upright at tables.'

David said he spotted the one known injured person, a man in his 30s, wandering in the street. 'His clothes were burned, burned away. He was unable to talk,' the fire lieutenant said.

The man was taken to Bronx Municipal Hospital and listed in guarded condition with burns over 50 percent of his body, police and hospital officials said.

More than 100 firefighters and rescue workers battled the fire and brought it under control at about 6 a.m.

Six firefighters were brought to local hospitals suffering from smoke inhalation. Five of them were treated and released and the sixth was listed in stable condition, officials said.

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Bodies were still being pulled from the 20- by 50-foot club, which had a yellow 'happy face' on its scorched sign and two exit doors, as the sun rose over the city. Bodies lying under pale blue shrouds littered the sidewalk near the club.

Authorities took instant photographs of the bodies and showed them to family members who tried to identify the victims.

'It's a pretty slow process,' said the Rev. A.B. Duncans of the First Glorious Church, who was consoling relatives of the victims. 'Most of the people are really upset. People are hysterical. It's terrible. We're trying to do what we can.'

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