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 in the history of the United States.[1]

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.[2] 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 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. [3] Shortly after, fire lawsuits were filed throughout the United States. These were consolidated in the United States District Court in San Juan Puerto Rico. 2,300 Plaintiffs, who had filed 264 separate lawsuits against 230 Defendants, sought a total of $1,800,000,000.00 in damages. [4]

The lawsuit was referred to by the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit as a “ligatory monster.” [5]

The trial judge, Raymond Acosta, 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 $85,000,000.00 and $100,000,000.00. [6]

The second phase in which the 107 Defendants were suppliers and product liability Defendants went to trial about 45 days later. [7] 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, Barber Colman, Inc., represented by Boston’s Cooley, Manion, Moore & Jones and Quantum Chemical, represented by Louisville Kentucky’s Brown, Todd & Heyburn. [8] A number of the other Defendants had settled and trial resumed against 36 remaining Defendants on May 14, 1990. [9]

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. [10] In all, payments for the deaths and injuries totaled more than $210,000,000.00 and Court records show that the case involved more than 1,000,000 documents. [11]


The fire gave rise to several amendments in security policies in hotels around the world.

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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Un héroe 25 años después on El Vocero; Camilo Torres, Raúl (December 28, 2011)
  3. ^ Chicago Tribune, January 6, 1987
  4. ^ New York Times, May 13, 1989
  5. ^ Philadelphia Enquirer, May 12, 1989; In re Recticel Foam Corp., 859 F. 2d 100 (1st Cir. 1988)
  6. ^ The Wall Street Journal, Eastern Edition (New York, N,Y.), May 15, 1989
  7. ^ The National Law Journal, October 15, 1990
  8. ^ The National Law Journal, October 15, 1990 as corrected on November 5, 1990; Merrill’s Illinois Legal Times, July, 1990
  9. ^ Chicago Tribune, May 15, 1990
  10. ^ NFPA Journal, 1999
  11. ^ The DuPont Tragedy Revisited (George Davis)

External links[edit]

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