NY marks 25th anniversary of club fire that killed 87

The club had been ordered closed for fire hazards — no sprinklers or emergency exits — but continued to operate illegally

The Associated Press

NEW YORK — Twenty-five years ago, what was then the biggest mass murder in U.S. history turned a New York City dance club into a smoky, flame-filled inferno that left dozens of people dead, some with drinks still clutched in their hands.

That night, a Cuban refugee named Julio Gonzalez tried to win back the woman who had spurned him.

The names of those who were killed in the Happy Land social club fire are displayed in a small park across the street from the former club's location.
The names of those who were killed in the Happy Land social club fire are displayed in a small park across the street from the former club's location. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Gonzalez entered the Happy Land social club in the Bronx, which was humming with mostly immigrants partying and dancing. His former live-in girlfriend, Lydia Feliciano, was checking coats and they had a violent argument. Gonzalez was thrown out.

In a rage, he returned just after 3 a.m., splashing gasoline on Happy Land's only exit and lighting two matches. Then he pulled down the metal front gate.

Within minutes, 87 people were dead.

That tragedy in March 1990 will be commemorated on Wednesday evening when a Roman Catholic Mass is held, followed by a procession from the church to a granite memorial near the club, where a candlelight vigil will take place.

The fire was the worst in New York City since 146 women died in a blaze at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in what is today's Greenwich Village. They were killed exactly 79 years earlier on March 25, 1911.

That spring night in 1990, people were smothered by black smoke or fatally burned. It happened so quickly that some appeared like frozen figures from Pompeii.

A few still had drinks in their hands. Some had torn off their party clothes, engulfed by flames. Others died hugging or holding hands. Bodies were piled up on Happy Land's dance floor in the darkness, their faces covered with soot.

"I woke up and smelled smoke," said Jeff Warley, who lived three blocks away. He walked to the site of the blaze, "and there were still bodies there, on the street" — wrapped in white and awaiting transport.

Feliciano survived, as did only a handful of others. Among them was the DJ, Ruben Valladares, who plunged into flames, staggering out with burns over 50 percent of his body.

Those who were trapped included Pablo Blanco's uncle, Mario Martinez, who left behind a wife and baby.

"He was my favorite uncle, he used to show me how to cook, he used to take me to different family events," said Blanco, standing this week at the edge of Southern Boulevard in the West Farms neighborhood near the onetime club, now a hair salon.

Even 25 years is not enough to erase the memories of horror vivid in the minds of survivors and those who never again saw their loved ones. One woman lost a half dozen family members, Blanco said.

"My friend Frank can't even come here, the memories just come up to him — of friends and family he's lost," he said.

In 1990, Happy Land drew a noisy, happy crowd of mostly young people. The club had been ordered closed for fire hazards — no sprinklers or emergency exits — but continued to operate illegally.

About two-thirds of the victims were part of a Bronx community of so-called Garifunas — Hondurans descended from proud black natives of the Caribbean exiled by British colonizers more than two centuries ago. In recent years, many Garifunas have fled a repressive Honduran regime and settled in New York.

That fateful weekend, they were enjoying their go-to club, speaking their own language and dancing to their drum-driven Garifuna music.

The neighborhood has changed since that night. "It's gotten worse," Blanco said. With an average income of $10,000 per family, dozens of businesses are shuttered after the recession, and many residents are on welfare.

Gonzalez, now 60, sits behind bars for life in an upstate New York prison. He was convicted on 174 counts of murder — two for each victim on charges of depraved indifference and felony murder.

A refugee from Fidel Castro's Cuba, he arrived in New York in the Mariel boatlift of 1980. A decade later, he was working in a warehouse, but lost his job six weeks before setting the fire, police said.

Earlier this month, Gonzalez was denied parole.

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