New York, NY Social Club Fire, Mar 1990
POLICE SHUT DOWN CLUBS.
REBUFFED LOVER CHARGED IN FIRE IN WHICH 87 DIED.
The Associated Press.
New York -- Police early today began shutting some of the 173 illegal social clubs in a crackdown ordered by Mayor DAVID DINKINS following the deadliest city fire in 79 years.
"I will tell you it will not be an endless battle," DINKINS said Sunday after touring the charred Happy Land social club in the Bronx. "Anybody that had an opportunity to view those 87 bodies knows that we're not going to tolerate this."
A man bounced from a Bronx social club for quarreling with an ex-girlfriend returned with a jug of gasoline and set a fire that killed 87 people at the nightspot, which had been ordered closed, police said.
Most of the dead suffocated in thick smoke in the pre-dawn blaze Sunday, authorities said. Some people were trampled to death, others broke a hole through a wall to an adjoining hall in a desperate attempt to live.
Emergency workers described bodies felled by smoke so quickly that they still had their legs wrapped around a bar stool, gripped drinks or held hands. Only three people managed to reach safety by way of the two tiny exit doors on the front of the two-story Happy Land social club.
"People literally were stacked on top of each other," said ANTHONY DeVITA, the Fire Department's command chief. "It was a firetrap."
The fire occurred 79 years to the day after a blaze at the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. in New York City that claimed 145 lives many of them immigrant garment workers. That blaze led to reforms around the nation in workplace safety.
JULIO GONZALES, a Cuban immigrant and former boyfriend of a Happy Land's ticket seller, was charged with arson and murber, Police Commissioner LEE BROWN said. He was to be arraigned later today.
GONZALEZ, 36, was bounced from the club after a quarrel in which he tried to woo back the woman, police said. After warning, "I'll be back," he returned and sprinkled gasoline on the floor, said Lt. JAMES MALVEY.
GONZALEZ cried with remorse under questioning, said Lt. RAYMOND O'DONNELL, a police spokesman. "Basically, he's saying he did it," O'DONNELL said.
Two rickety staircases lead to the second-story dance floor where most of the bodies were found. Disc jockey, RUBEN VALLADARES, who spun reggae, salsa and calypso records, ran through the flames and was hospitalized with severe burns.
At least two other women escaped. Their condition was unknown.
"People were screaming, they were all burned," said ROSEMARY GREEN, who found the club on fire when she arrived to meet her sister-in-law and cousin. "Once you got in the entrance, there was no way to get out."
GONZALEZ, an unemployed warehouse worker, came to the United States on the Mariel boatlift in 1980, O'DONNELL said.
Police said he went into the club about 3 a.m. and began arguing with the woman.
"He's trying to talk her into making up; she's saying 'Leave me alone,'" O'DONNELL said. The man's ex-girlfriend left before the fire, which was reported at 3:41 a.m., BROWN said. Police withheld her identity.
DENISE GARCIA, 20, a filing clerk who lives in the neighborhood, said she and her friends avoided the blub because they considered it "too sleazy." The building was rickety and the dance floor sometimes trembled, she said.
One firefighter broke a leg, 13 of his colleagues also were injured.
New York City mayors have waged a long and unsuccessful battle to close the clubs, which are popular among immigrants because they are cheap.
An interagency task force put together by then Mayor EDWARD KOCH after a 1988 Bronx social club fire that killed seven people will be beefed up, DINKINS said.
The number of clubs citywide is hard to pin down since they can spring up overnight, often in a dank basement or abandoned building.
ALBERT SCARDINO, the mayor's press secretary, said police list about 1,220 clubs without liquor licenses, with about 1,000 considered inactive. The Happy Land was considered inactive.
"They range from a group of elderly men who get together to play cards and watch a ballgame on a Sunday afternoon to full-fledged nightclub operations," said RICHARD CHERNELA, a state Liquor Authority sopkesman.
A review of city records Sunday turned up 173 social clubs that have been ordered vacated.
Twenty teams of inspectors from the Police, Fire and Building departments were scheduled to carry out inspections starting today to make sure the 173 are closed.
If not, "we'll see to it that they certainly aren't open come the next weekend," DINKINS said.
Just about anyone can go to a social club, despite the term's implication of exclusivity.
Despite periodic campaigns to close them, many of the clubs have become centers of urban problems, from noise and double-parking to gambling, prostitution and drug dealing.
The clubs are often rife with building, health and fire code violations that can lead to tragedy. Five people died in a Brooklyn club fire in 1985, and 25 people were killed in a Bronx fire in 1976.
"People are literally taking their lives in theirhands at these clubs," Bronx Borough President FERNANDO FERRER said.
DINKINS said a vacate order was issued in November 1988 against the Happy Land because the club did not have a proper sprinkler system, exits, emergency lighting and signs.
City records show an arrest was made there on July 24, and the club was closed again on Nov. 1, he said.
City officials said the building was sold last year to KARL RUBMAN, but DINKINS said it was unclear who owns the property now. Residents said the manager of the club was ELIAS COLON. The Daily News reported that COLON'S wife, ELENA, was one of the survivors.
Syracuse Herald Journal New York 1990-03-26