Reflecting on the Happy Land social club fire and similar incidents

Three tragedies were rooted in New York’s inability to shut down social clubs or gain their compliance with current codes

New York City has seen more than its share of deadly fires in social clubs and nightclubs operating illegally.

In October 1976, 25 people died and 24 were injured in an arson fire at the Puerto Rican Social Club in the South Bronx. In August 1988, seven people died and 33 were injured, including 12 firefighters, in a suspicious fire at the El Hoyo social club on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx. And on March 25, 1990, 87 died and 28 were injured in an arson fire at the Happy Land social club in the Bronx.

These fires did not stem from a lack of regulations, but more the unwillingness or inability of the city to force hundreds of illegal social clubs out of business or into compliance. Whether from the sheer complexity of the problem or politics or both, the city handled code enforcement haphazardly, with the departments responsible for code enforcement operating within a siloed bureaucracy.

On March 25, 1990, 87 people died and 28 were injured in an arson fire at the Happy Land social club in the Bronx.
On March 25, 1990, 87 people died and 28 were injured in an arson fire at the Happy Land social club in the Bronx. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

Social club fire commonalities

Common factors exist in social and nightclub fires that have occurred worldwide:

  • Lack of enforcement of safety regulations
  • Overcrowding
  • People gathered on the second floor or in the basement
  • Flammable decorations
  • Insufficient means of egress
  • On-stage pyrotechnics
  • Arson
  • Alcohol consumption by club patrons
  • Delayed notification of the fire department

In the New York City incidents referenced above, firefighters arrived quickly and were highly trained with expert leadership.

In at least one of the fires, an FDNY firehouse was nearby, and yet the firefighters could do nothing to avert tragedy. Crews focused on their critical tasks – get to the fire, get water on the fire, and get to those trapped inside – but people still perished.

1976 Puerto Rican Social Club fire

The 1970s were the “war years” in New York City, especially for the FDNY and NYPD in the South Bronx. This fire might have been a heads-up for things to come, as it foreshadowed the Happy Land social club fire. The difference in this incident is that many guests were able to jump from the second floor and escape the fire, even if the crowding forced each one to wait their turn for the window.  

1988 El Hoyo social club fire

In the 1988 social club fire on Jerome Avenue, arriving firefighters had many indications of a dangerous situation. Besides the fire, they were hampered by panicked people who had just escaped the building, with some attempting to reenter to rescue friends and family.

Captain James Gallagher of FDNY Ladder Company 33 described the scene for The New York Times: “There was heavy, heavy fire and smoke when we arrived … there was so much fire blowing out into the street that water didn't have any effect on it in the initial stages …. flames roared through its roof and its windows, which were covered with heavy iron gates .... civilians kept screaming at us .... it was hard to hear each other ... and people were trying to grab our tools off the trucks to go inside.'”

Capt. Gallagher speculated on the mid-day fire, “My personal opinion is: No way a fire could have been cooking slowly at that time of day ... whatever it was, it was quick.”

The firefighters of the FDNY were pushed to the limit that day: Ladder 33, Ladder 44 and Engine 92 received Unit Citations, and three firefighters received individual awards for bravery.

1990 Happy Land social club fire

In the early morning hours of March 25, 1990, in New York City, many young people, mostly Hondurans, entered the Bronx social club for a night of fun, dancing and drinking to celebrate Carnival. One patron argued with his girlfriend, who worked at the club, and he was ejected by a bouncer. Angered, he returned with gasoline and set a fire in the only means of entry and exit. As a result of his act of revenge, 87 people were asphyxiated or burned to death from the vicious fire that raced up the stairwell to the second floor.

At the time, the Happy Land fire was the worst loss of life in a fire in New York City since the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire of 1911, a fire that coincidently occurred exactly 79 years to the day prior to Happy Land.

Like hundreds of other illegal social clubs then in the city, the Happy Land social club had no state liquor license. City officials knew of the club, having ordered it closed for code violations 16 months before the incident. Despite the citation and order, the club remained in operation.

Writing eleven years later, FDNY Lt. Thomas Mulligan summarized the experience of the Happy Land fire:  

  • Firefighters, police officers and EMS personnel lost confidence in their belief that if they got to an incident quickly and performed their jobs well, the outcome would be successful no matter the circumstances.
  • The community realized they were not immune from tragedy and had to take personal responsibility for their own survival in the places that they entered.
  • The city government acted as it always did after a deadly incident: It formed a commission to quickly fix the problem, thus providing short-term solutions to a long-term problem.

The first firefighters arrived promptly, in around three minutes, knocking down the ground-level fire in minutes. But in stark contrast to the 1988 El Hoyo fire, there were no victims to rescue. When the arsonist set the fire, those inside were doomed.

After Happy Land, the FDNY asked NIST to study the fire using a computer-simulated hazard analysis. With nothing but floor plans and newspaper accounts, NIST developed the fire scenario for analysis and offered strategies for mitigation that included: coverage with automatic fire sprinklers, a door at the base of the rear stairway, a second exit, and making interior finishes noncombustible. Regardless of these mitigation strategies, the NIST study concluded that some were still doomed in this fire.

Final thoughts

The lessons from Happy Land apply, in whole or part, to club fires around the world: Be responsible and use situational awareness. Deciding to enter a building should not be the last decision you make. If it does not look safe, do not enter.

This article, which was originally published in 2020, has been updated.

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