Dupont Plaza Hotel arson
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The fire was set by three disgruntled employees of the hotel who were in the middle of a labor dispute with the owners of the hotel. The fire claimed 97 lives and caused 140 injuries. It is the most catastrophic hotel fire in Puerto Rican history, and the second in the history of the United States.
The Puerto Rico Fire Department was dispatched at around 3:40 pm and 13 firetrucks, 100 firefighters, and 35 ambulances responded.
The employees of the hotel were in the middle of a labor dispute with hotel management relating to higher salaries and medical care. Three of the employees, Héctor Escudero Aponte, José Rivera López, and Arnaldo Jiménez Rivera planned on setting several fires with the intention of scaring tourists who wanted to stay at the hotel.
The hotel's labor organization (which at some point was affiliated with the Teamsters[vague]) called a meeting for the afternoon of December 31, 1986. At the conclusion of the meeting, the members voted to go on strike. Around 3:30 PM, a few men placed opened cans of a flammable liquid commonly used in chafing dishes in a storage room adjacent to the ballroom on the ground floor of the hotel. The storage room was filled to the ceiling with unused furniture from the hotel. While some of the labor organizers created a distraction by staging a fight just outside the doors to the ballroom, three men set the fuel alight. The fire ignited the furniture and burned out of control, growing to massive proportions and flashing over. After flashing over in the ballroom, the super heated gasses swept up the grand staircase into the lobby of the hotel. From there, the fire was sucked into the open doors of the casino by the smoke-eaters (devices in the ceiling that sucked the smoke from cigarettes out of the room) present throughout the casino. Most of the deaths occurred in the casino, as guests discovered that the emergency exit doors were locked and that the only other egress from the casino was through a pair of inward-opening doors. Several months before the fire, hotel management had the emergency exit doors locked to prevent theft. The casino patrons pressed against the doors to no avail. Some guests leapt from the second-story casino through plate-glass windows to the pool deck below. Others perished from smoke inhalation on upper floors of the casino. Others were killed as they rode the elevators to the lobby only to discover their path blocked by the fire when the doors opened. The fire ultimately claimed 97 lives.
Those who were able to do so climbed to the hotel's roof, where an improvised but ultimately successful helicopter rescue, including Civilian, Commonwealth Police, Puerto Rico National Guard, U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Navy helicopters from the Roosevelt Roads Naval Air Station, transported those trapped to safety.
The total number of casualties of the fire has been estimated at 97, mostly by burns. Most of the victims were burned beyond recognition. Of the recognizable casualties, one was found in a bathroom, three were found in a lounge by the casino, another three were found in an elevator and one other was found in a fourth floor room.
The fire gave rise to several amendments in security policies in hotels around the world.
More than 2,000 claims were filed against the hotel. The resulting litigation was, at the time, the largest civil litigation in U.S. history with over 2000 plaintiffs, 250 defendants and more than $2 billion in claims. Eventually the hotel management and most of the other defendants in the civil case settled with the plaintiffs. The remaining defendants were held not liable at trial.
Of the three employees accused of the fire, only one, Héctor Escudero Aponte, is still in prison. Armando Jimenez and José Francisco Rivera Lopez were released from federal prison in 2001 and 2002 respectively.
The Dupont Plaza was built in 1964; at the time, neither federal nor Puerto Rican law mandated fire sprinklers. After the fire, both bodies passed laws requiring hotels to have sprinklers.
The Dupont Plaza reopened in 1995 as the San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino after a massive overhaul effort that lasted eight years.
- Un héroe 25 años después on El Vocero; Camilo Torres, Raúl (December 28, 2011)
- ANALYSIS OF CARBOXYHEMOGLOBIN AND CYANIDE IN BLOOD FROM VICTIMS OF THE DUPONT PLAZA HOTEL FIRE IN PUERTO RICO National Institute of Standards and Technology
- Video of rescue operation on Rescue 911: