Port Chester, NY Dance Hall Fire, Jun 1974
DANCE FLOOR BECOMES DEATH FLOOR
PORT CHESTER, N. Y. (UPI) -- For the 18 and 20-year-olds in the affluent suburbs stretching east of New York, Gulliver's was one of the "in" discotheques.
With affordable and loud if not always good music, the night spor located squarely astride the New York-Connecticut border was jammed on weekends. Young couples stood two and three deep outside, waiting to get in. There was seldom trouble and if there was a 200-pound bouncer named JOE PARSONS was ready to stop things before they got out of hand.
There's a 'Small Fire'
A few minutes after 1 a. m. Sunday, JOE HENDERSON, leader of a rock band called "The Creation," told about 200 persons inside the club (other estimates ranged up to 700) that there was a "small fire" in an adjoining building and smoke had started to seep into Gulliver's. A few customers stirred and heeded HENDERSONS' advice to leave.
Most remained in their seats or on the crowded dance floor.
Within 2 or 3 minutes, witnesses said, the place was filled with choking, black smoke and flames began chewing through the wall separating the club and an adjoining men's clothing store, trapping and killing 24 of those inside.
Another 32 were injured by the falling debris. And, hours later, firemen digging through twisted steel beams in stacks of charred tables and chairs marveled that more had not perished.
Authorities today had identified only a few of the 24 persons killed in the fire. SANDRA WANGEN, 35, Stamford, Conn., one of the first to be identified as dead, was "alive and well at her home," medical officials said today.
Her mother told Stamford police Sunday night, "My daughter is alive and well at her home," they said. Her husband, JOHN WANGEN, had "positively identified" her as dead Sunday afternoon.
"I don't know how any of us got out alive," said JUDY GRELLA, 18, of Bridgeport, Conn., who sat stunned with her boyfriend, FRANK DINARDO, 18, also of Bridgeport, as firemen pulled the 24th body, believed to be one of the rock musicians, from beneath a steel beam that had crashed down on the bandstand in the 50-by-50 foot dance area of the club.
MISS GRELLA, DINARDO and scores of other young people stumbled and crawled, choking and screaming from the club.
Shoes Found in Debris
At the foot of the red carpeted 7-step stairway leading from the main level of the club to the dance floor, a half dozen pairs of shoes were found buried in the debris, aparently[sic] lsot or abandoned by their owners in their panic-stricken flight to get away from the smoke and flames.
PARSONS, the 20-year-old bouncer, said when HENDERSON announced the fire next door, everyone seemed calm enough, but as the smoke gushed into the room, the customers began scrambling to get out.
A few made it through a cellar exit, but most apparently stumbled and groped their way up a stairway to the main level where their were three exits.
Crowded on Knees
"I grabbed the railing on the staircase, then fell to the floor and crawled out on my knees. If I hadn't known the way, I'd be dead," PARSONS said.
Firemen found all of the victims within 25 feet of the bandstand and fire chief VINCENT RATHGEB said most apparently died of smoke asphyxiation in a matter of moments after the inferno flashed out of the adjoining building's basement.
Mayor JOSEPH DZALUK of Port Chester, 25 miles east of New York City, said the club had been inspected a few weeks ago and five exits, three of them on the upper level of the split-level nightspot, all were judged satisfactory and operating.
"None of the doors were locked," he said.
DZALUK and Westchester County District Attorney CARL VERGARI announced the start of an immediate investigation into the fire. JOSEPH BENEROFF, one of the owners of the small shopping center where the discotheque was located, said the basement where the fire was believed to have started was "vacant and clean," housing only gas and electric meters for the club, a bowling alley, a barber shop and the men's store.
All 24 bodies were sent to Grasslands Hospital in Valhalla, N. Y. County Medical Examiner, DR. HENRY SEIGEL, said it might be several days before all of the victims could be identified.
Those identified as dead included: ROBERT AMICO, 19, Stamford, Conn.; LINDA EDWARDS, New Canaan, Conn.; VIRGINIA GUANNAT, 19, Cos Cob, Conn.; and MICHAEL McMANUS, 22, Scarsdale, N. Y.
Syracuse Herald-Journal New York 1974-07-01
'Don't Know How We Got Out Alive,' Says City Girl After Discotheque Blaze
"I don't know how we got out of there alive," said MISS JUDITH GRELLA, 18, of 269 Horace street, this city, as she related how she and her escort, FRANK DiNARDO, 19, of 21 Ground Pine lane, Easton, escaped in the tragic discotheque fire Sunday in Port Chester, N. Y.
Twenty-four other dancers, including four from Fairfield county, didn't escape. They died of smoke inhalation as they groped their way in the darkened dance room, authorities said.
The county victims were identified as TIMOTHY SCALA, 19, son of MR. and MRS. AUGUSTUS SCALA, 10 Parkway, Fairfield; ROBERT AMICO, 19, of Stamford; LINDA EDWARDS, 20, of New Canaan, and VIRGINIA GAUNNAT, 18, of Cos Cob.
ANother county resident, JANET HAEHL, of Treadwell avenue, Westport, was believe to have been among those in the club, and today she was listed as missing.
In addition 20 other Fairfield county residents, including Greenwich firemen, were injured.
"Everybody started rushing toward the stairs, MISS GRELLA said. "We couldn't see anything, we had to crawl up. I don't know how we got out of there alive."
"All of a sudden the lights went out and everybody started coughing and going to the exit," she added.
Her escort MR. DiNARDO said "people were passing out all over the stairway."
"I could feel people grabbing at my legs, trying to pull themselves up the stairs," he said.
"JUDY tripped as we made our way up the stairs and I put my arm around her and grabbed the rail to pull us up," he added.
MISS GRELLA'S mother said she received a call from her daughter at 2:45 a. m., and learned of the fire. "I was shaking when she told me," MRS. LEE GRELLA recounted. "It was terrible. Thank God she is alive," she added.
"JUDY said to me, 'Mom, I didn't know how I made it. I just pictured myself being identified,'" MRS. GRELLA related.
MRS. GRELLA said she took her daughter to Bridgeport hospital for X-rays when she returned home "to make sure she was alright."
Westchester County Executive ALFRED DelBELLO ordered a full investigation into the fire in the roadhouse located on the Connecticut-New York border in this town of 25,000 north of New York City.
Several investigators advanced the theory that the fire broke out in a store in the same building and was drawn into the discotheque by an air-conditioning system.
An attorney for the owners of the building estimated there were about 200 persons in the discotheque when the fire began.
Port Chester Fire Chief VINCENT RATHGEB said he believed most of the victims suffocated swiftly. FRANK R. ARBUSTO, chief of the Fire Prevention Bureau and head of the investigation, said other victims apparently were blinded while trying to seek exits from the split-level building.
Mayor JOSEPH F. DZALUK said the most recent Fire Department investigation of the discotheque was conducted May 8, and no violations were reported.
County Dist. Atty. CARL A. VERGARI assigned his arson specialist to the case although "there is no evidence at this time that criminality was involved."
Police said the crowd dancing to the music of the "Creation" rock group when the fire broke was the usual affluent one drawn to the night spot from Westchester county and neighboring Fairfield county.
According to Mayor DZALUK, "the band leader advised people on the dance floor that they had better leave when he noticed a little smoke. However, the crowd did not leave until the smoke got more intense and he began shouting for everyone to move out immediately."
DEBBIE QUICK, 20, of Greenwich, Conn., said she started choking on the thick-acrid smoke as she followed the crowd toward stairs leading up from the sunken dance floor.
"There were people being knocked down ahead of me," she said. "Every time I took a step up somebody pushed me down. If somebody fell, they were trampled. A girl got knocked down next to me and a guy just stepped on her and walked on."
"All I could hear were screams. I kept pushing up. I got to the top of the stairs. The smoke was thicker. I tried to push left toward the door when I got knocked against the wall. Then I started to pass out but I remember somebody pushing me through the door. I fell into the parking lot and passed out."
She said the next thing she remembered was receiving oxygen in the parking lot.
Several survivors of the blaze said the lights went out, but the lawyer for the owners of the building insisted there was no loss of electrical power.
While investigators sought to find out what started the fire, chief county Medical Examiner DR. HENRY SIEGEL continued the grim task of identifying the dead, warning that the job was "liable to take days."
Until SIEGEL closed his office Sunday night at Grasslands Hospital inf Valhalla, N. Y., and sent anxious relatives home, they kept up a vigil amid a strong atmosphere of resignation.
"The gloom and despair are as heavy as the smoke at the fire," said one person.
"I've all but given up hope," said THOMAS BURKE, of Stamford. He said that while he was looking for his son, THOMAS, JR., he drove past the restaurant and spotted the youth's parked car.
"He may not have been able to get in touch with us, but he would never leave his car," said BURKE.
One woman, SANDRA M. WANGEN, of Greenwich, Conn., was placed on the death list on the basis of an identification by her husband. However, the identification of the charred body apparently was wrong, and SIEGEL'S investigator CHARLES MOORE said her name was removed from the list.
Authorities said those from Fairfield County injured at Greenwich hospital, Greenwich, and United hospital in Port Chester, N. Y., included:
THOMAS FUHR, fireman, Byram, cut scalp.
JACK MACANNI, fireman, Greenwich, smoke inhalation, treated and released.
PATRICK FAUGHNAN, fireman, Riverside, smoke inhalation.
BRUCE FUNSTON, fireman, Greenwich, smoke inhalation.
DONALD MIGHARDT, fireman, Greenwich, smoke inhalation.
THOMAS KEEGAN, fireman, Greenwich, smoke inhalation.
KATHY CHATICUT, Stamford, smoke inhalation.
SHARON HUSTED, Stamford, smoke inhalation.
STEVE DANZIGER, Weston, smoke inhalation.
MARY LANGLEY, Greenwich, smoke inhalation.
ELIZABETH BALLARD, Greenwich, smoke inhalation.
JEFFREY ZEIBA, Greenwich, smoke inhalation.
PATRICIA GILBERT, Greenwich, smoke inhalation.
J. A. BERCZAK, Norwalk, smoke inhalation.
MARGIE HANKS, Darien, smoke inhalation.
ROBERT LASKO, fireman, Stamford, smoke inhalation, treated and released.
PETER RUSSO, fireman, Glenville, smoke inhalation, treated and released.
GINA SCHINASI, Stamford, smoke inhalation, treated and released.
JOHN A. SLUSARZ, fireman, Greenwich, smoke inhalation, signed out of hospital.
DEBBIE QUICK, Greenwich, smoke inhalation, signed out of hospital.
The Bridgeport Post Connecticut 1974-07-01
Researched and Transcribed by Stu Beitler. Thank you, Stu!