Dupont Plaza Hotel arson

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Dupont Plaza Rescue by Phyllis Gottschalk

The Dupont Plaza Hotel Fire was a fire that occurred at the Hotel Dupont Plaza (now San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino) in San Juan, Puerto Rico on New Year's Eve, December 31, 1986.

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 deadliest in the history of the United States.[1]

Hotel history[edit]

The Dupont Plaza was built in 1964, and was operated by the Sheraton hotel company until 1978, 3 years before Sheraton would impose significant fire-safety measures in its hotels throughout the world.[2] Before national fire safety requirements were enacted in 1990, most hotels had implemented fire safety measures based on local regulations and ordinances, which sometimes were considered lax depending on the locality, despite fires and fire-related deaths occurring at hotels constantly during that era.[2] In June 1985, the Dupont Plaza was inspected by the local fire department and was found to have deficiencies in its safety systems, including lack of evacuation and emergency plans and malfunctioning equipment.[3] That same year, there were 7,500 reported fires in hotels and motels across the U.S., with 85 deaths and $56 million in damages ($123 million in present day terms).[2] The fire sprinkler system, which was not criticized in the fire department's report,[3] was not automated, as was 95% of hotels across the U.S. at that time.[4]

Fire[edit]

Background[edit]

The employees of the hotel were in the middle of a labor dispute with hotel management, with negotiations between the hotel and the employees' union, Local 901 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters,[3][5] starting in October 1986.[6] The union represented 250 out of the hotels 450 total employees.[7] One of the main issues causing the dispute was the alleged plan of the hotel to terminate 60 union members from employment, to be substituted by non-union employees.[3] 30 additional security guards were added by the hotel's management in the week of the fire following three smaller fires at the hotel: one in a linen closet, one in a pile of cardboard boxes, and another in a roll of carpeting.[6] The situation between the hotel's management and the union became so tense that during the week of the fire, desk clerks, taxi drivers, and food stand employees around the area were advising tourists to stay away from the hotel and its casino.[6] One week after the fire, the Governor of Puerto Rico Rafael Hernández Colón stated that, according to preliminary reports, in the days before the fire "information was going around that something was going to happen."[6]

Disaster[edit]

The employees union called a meeting held in the hotel's ballroom for the afternoon of December 31, 1986. At the conclusion of the meeting around 3:00pm, the 125 members present voted to go on strike later that day starting at midnight.[3][8] At the time, the hotel was estimated to be in near peak occupancy, with 900 to 1,000 guests.[6]

Three union members, 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, and at around 3:30 PM, placed opened cans of a flammable liquid used in chafing dishes in a storage room filled with new furniture purchased for the hotel, adjacent to the ballroom on the ground floor of the hotel.[3][9] 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.[9] The fire ignited the furniture and quickly burned out of control, growing to massive proportions and flashing over.

After flashing over in the ballroom (which witnesses confused with an explosion), 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. With over 150 guests estimated to be present in the casino when the fire broke out,[7] most of the deaths occurred in that area, 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. Some 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, suffering several injuries.[9] 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. 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.[6][9]

We got to the 8th floor, but then there were people blocked by smoke. We ran to another stairway, and got down to the eighth floor again before we ran into the smoke. [At the roof] Helicopters circled around us, but it looked like they were afraid to land. Finally, one hovered about two feet above the roof. A co-pilot reached his hand out and pulled us to a step under the door. It looked like there was room in the back of the helicopter for two people. We squeezed five in.[6]

—Baiba Brensson, a survivor relating the events.

The Puerto Rico Fire Department was dispatched at around 3:40 pm and 13 firetrucks, 100 firefighters, and 35 ambulances responded. Firefighters extinguished the flames three hours later, although black smoke continued through the night.[6]

Casualties[edit]

The total number of casualties of the fire was 97, mostly by burns, and 140 injured.[4][10] Most of the victims were burned beyond recognition and their belongings destroyed, with only a small percentage readily identifiable bodies.[6] 84 bodies were found in the casino, 5 in the lobby, 3 in an elevator, and 2 at a pool-side bar outside the hotel.[7]

Aftermath[edit]

Investigation[edit]

An investigation by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration revealed 25 safety violations, including a lack of emergency exit doors in the casino area leading to the deaths of 84 trapped guests.[5]

The teamsters union representing the hotel employees denied that it or any of its members were related to the fire, and offered $15,000 reward for information that would help the investigation of the fire.[6] Three members of the union were convicted of murder for starting the fire, and sentenced to 99 years in prison.[5][7] 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.

Lawsuits[edit]

Attorneys arrived from the mainland to represent victims of the hotel fire. The lawyers were from firms whose past liability cases included the MGM-Grand Hotel fire in Las Vegas and a Stouffer’s Hotel fire in New York State.[11] Shortly after, fire lawsuits were filed throughout the United States. These were consolidated in the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico in San Juan. 2,300 Plaintiffs, who had filed 264 separate lawsuits against 230 Defendants, sought a total of $1.8 billion in damages.[5]

The lawsuit was referred to by the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit as a “ligatory monster.” [12]

Raymond Acosta was assigned as trial judge for the claims, and he divided the trial into phases. Representative Plaintiffs were selected and the first phase against the so-called DuPont-Family Defendants, who included the corporation who owned the hotel and some 40 limited partnerships, corporations and individuals who the Plaintiffs claimed controlled the hotel went to trial on March 15, 1989. This phase was settled on May 11, 1989 for between $85 million and $100 million.[5][13]

The second phase in which the 107 Defendants were suppliers and product liability Defendants went to trial about 45 days later.[14] After nine months of trial, the Court directed verdicts of no liability in favor of three Defendants, Johnson Controls, Inc., represented by Chicago’s Arnstein & Lehr, LLP, Barber Colman, Inc., represented by Boston’s Cooley, Manion, Moore & Jones and Quantum Chemical, represented by Louisville Kentucky’s Brown, Todd & Heyburn.[15] A number of the other Defendants had settled and trial resumed against 36 remaining Defendants on May 14, 1990.[16]

After 15 months of trial, the jury reached its verdict following one week of deliberations. Of the 10 remaining Defendants the jury found five of them not liable.[17] In all, payments for the deaths and injuries totaled more than $210 million and Court records show that the case involved more than 1,000,000 documents.[18]

Legacy[edit]

The Dupont Hotel fire and other fires of the era gave rise to several amendments in security policies in hotels around the world. One of the biggest problems at the time was the lack of standard fire safety requirements. In 1987, there were four major fire codes across the United States with over 1,800 variations because of local codes and ordinances,[2] with one code having significant fire protection requirements, and another having nothing.[2]

On September 25, 1990, three years after the disaster, the United States enacted the Hotel and Motel Fire Safety Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-391), requiring all hotels and other public accommodations which wish to accommodate federal workers and/or hold federally-funded activities to have smoke detectors in all guest rooms and have sprinkler systems installed and working if the building was more than three stories.[19] U.S. Representative Sherwood L. Boehlert stated that the law was one of the first times the U.S government took "direct action to protect the public at large from the danger of fire"[19] and the United States Fire Administration has credited the Dupont Plaza fire along with the MGM Grand fire in 1980 as the catalysts which helped get the safety requirements signed into law.[20]

The Dupont Plaza reopened in 1995 as the San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino after a massive overhaul effort that lasted eight years.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Un héroe 25 años después on El Vocero; Camilo Torres, Raúl (December 28, 2011)
  2. ^ a b c d e Grimes, Paul (15 February 1987). "Take This Fire Safety Savvy With You When You Check In At A Hotel". New York Times News Service and the Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 6 May 2014. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f May, Clifford (7 January 1987). "Puerto Rico Inquiry Said To Focus On Several Union Hotel Workers". The New York Times. Retrieved 7 May 2014. 
  4. ^ a b Mower, Joan (8 March 1987). "Dupont Plaza Fire Survivors Still Trying to Come to Terms With Tragedy". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 7 May 2014. 
  5. ^ a b c d e Associated Press (13 May 1989). "Suits Are Settled In San Juan Fire". The New York Times. Retrieved 7 May 2014. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Hirsley, Michael (2 January 1987). "Labor Hostility Cited". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 6 May 2014. 
  7. ^ a b c d Robinson, Kathleen. "Looking Back: The 1986 Dupont Plaza Hotel Fire". National Fire Protection Association Journal. Retrieved 7 May 2014. 
  8. ^ Diamond, Mark (1 August 1987). "Anatomy of a Disaster: The DuPont Plaza Hotel Fire". ABA Journal. Retrieved 6 May 2014. 
  9. ^ a b c d Tepfer, Daniel (30 December 2011). "A vacation in paradise turns into fiery hell". Connecticut Post. Retrieved 7 May 2014. 
  10. ^ Analysis Of Carboxyhemoglobin And Cyanide In Blood From Victims Of The Dupont Plaza Hotel Fire In Puerto Rico, National Institute of Standards and Technology
  11. ^ Chicago Tribune, January 6, 1987
  12. ^ Philadelphia Enquirer, May 12, 1989; In re Recticel Foam Corp., 859 F. 2d 100 (1st Cir. 1988)
  13. ^ The Wall Street Journal, Eastern Edition (New York, N,Y.), May 15, 1989
  14. ^ The National Law Journal, October 15, 1990
  15. ^ The National Law Journal, October 15, 1990 as corrected on November 5, 1990; Merrill’s Illinois Legal Times, July 1990
  16. ^ Chicago Tribune, May 15, 1990
  17. ^ NFPA Journal, 1999
  18. ^ The DuPont Tragedy Revisited (George Davis) www.ccgtcc-ccn.com/DuPontPlaza
  19. ^ a b Wade, Betsy (20 April 1997). "Hotels Burn". New York Times News Service and the Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 6 May 2014. 
  20. ^ "Summary of Law: The Hotel and Motel Fire Safety Act of 1990 (PL101-391)". FEMA.gov. U.S. Fire Administration. Retrieved 9 May 2014. 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 18°27′22″N 66°4′13″W / 18.45611°N 66.07028°W / 18.45611; -66.07028