The Happy Land fire was an act of arson that killed 87 people on March 25, 1990, in the Bronx in New York City, United States. The 87 victims were trapped in the unlicensed Happy Land social club, located at 1959 Southern Boulevard in the West Farms section of the Bronx. Most of the victims were young Hondurans celebrating Carnival, many of them part of the Garifuna American community. Cuban refugee Julio González, whose former girlfriend was employed at the club, was arrested soon afterward and ultimately convicted of arson and murder.

Happy Land fire
Investigation of the club on the day after the fire
LocationWest Farms, The Bronx, New York City, New York, U.S.
Coordinates40°50′35″N 73°53′09″W / 40.8431125°N 73.8859465°W / 40.8431125; -73.8859465
DateMarch 25, 1990; 34 years ago (1990-03-25)
3 a.m. EDT
TargetHappy Land social club
Attack type
Arson, mass murder
PerpetratorJulio González
MotiveArgument with ex-girlfriend

The fire was the deadliest in New York City since the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which coincidentally occurred on the same day in 1911, and the deadliest in American territory since the Dupont Plaza Hotel fire in Puerto Rico in 1986 and the Winecoff Hotel Fire in 1946.[1][2]

Background edit

The building that housed Happy Land club was managed by Jay Weiss, the primary leaseholder, and Morris Jaffe. In 1987, Weiss and Jaffe's company, Little Peach Realty Inc., had leased the building space for seven years to the club owner, Elias Colon, who died in the fire.[3][4] An eviction trial against Colon had been scheduled to start on March 28, 1990, three days after the fire.[3]

Before the blaze, Happy Land was ordered to close for building code violations in November 1988. Violations included lack of fire exits, alarms or sprinkler system. No follow-up by the fire department was documented.[5]

Julio González served three years in prison in Cuba during the 1970s for desertion from the Cuban Army.[6] In 1980, he faked a criminal record as a drug dealer to help him gain passage in the Mariel boatlift.[6] The boatlift landed in Florida; he then traveled to Wisconsin and Arkansas and eventually settled in New York, sponsored by the American Council for Nationalities in Manhattan.[6]

Six weeks before the fire, he split up with his girlfriend, Lydia Feliciano. Before that, González had lost his job at a lamp factory in Queens.[7] At the time of the fire, he was two weeks behind on the rent of his room, and the owner of the boarding house where he was staying said of him: "From what I know, he was down to his last hope."[7]

Incident edit

The evening of the fire, González had argued with his former girlfriend, Feliciano, who was a coat check worker at the club, urging her to quit. She said that she had had enough of him and did not want anything to do with him anymore. He was ejected by the bouncer around 3:00 a.m.[2][6] He was heard to scream drunken threats to "shut this place down."[7] He also reportedly shouted, "I'll be coming back." Feliciano tried to warn others, worried that González was going to do something.

González went to an Amoco gas station, then returned to the establishment with a plastic container with $1.00 worth of gasoline.[2][6] He spread the fuel at the base of a staircase, the only access into the club, and then ignited the gasoline.[8]

Eighty-seven people died in the resulting fire. Nineteen bodies were found downstairs; the others upstairs. Six bodies were found within several feet of the front door.[9][2] Some of those trapped punched a hole through a wall to an adjoining union hall in an attempt to escape.[9] Most of the deaths were from asphyxiation or trampling.[6] The club filled with toxic smoke so quickly that some victims were found with drinks still in hand.[1] Most of the victims were young Hondurans celebrating Carnival,[1][2] largely drawn from members of the local Garifuna American community.[10][11] A hundred and fifty firemen responded to the blaze, which was extinguished in five minutes.[9]

Initial reports indicated that only three people survived the blaze,[12] but later reports gave the number of survivors as five[13] or six.[6] Among them were Feliciano, the club owner's wife, and disc jockey Ruben Valladares. Valladares was hospitalized in guarded condition with second- and third-degree burns over half his body.[9]

Julio González
Julio González

October 10, 1954
DiedSeptember 13, 2016 (aged 61)
Criminal statusDied in prison
Conviction(s)Second degree murder (87 counts)
First degree arson (87 counts)
Criminal penalty25 years to life imprisonment

After setting the fire, González returned home, removed his gasoline-soaked clothes and fell asleep.[6] He was arrested the following afternoon after police investigators interviewed Feliciano and learned of the previous night's argument. Once advised of his rights, he admitted to starting the blaze.[6]

Legal proceedings edit

Arsonist edit

González was charged with 174 counts of murder, two for each victim, and was found guilty on 87 counts of arson and 87 counts of murder on August 19, 1991. For each count, he received the maximum sentence of 25 years to life. He was eligible for parole during March 2015 as New York law states that the sentences for multiple murders occurring during one act must be served concurrently, rather than consecutively.[14][15]

González was denied parole in March 2015.[16] He would have been eligible to apply for parole again in November 2016,[16] but he died in prison of a heart attack on September 13, 2016, at the age of 61.[17]

Landlords and other parties edit

The Bronx District Attorney said that the building's owner, Alex DiLorenzo III, and leaseholders Weiss and Morris Jaffe, were not responsible criminally, since they had tried to close the club and evict the tenant.[18] Weiss was at the time the husband of actress Kathleen Turner.[3] The New Yorker quoted Turner saying that "the fire was unfortunate but could have happened at a McDonald's".[19]

Although the Bronx District Attorney said they were not criminally responsible, the New York City Corporation Counsel filed misdemeanor charges in February 1991 against Alex DiLorenzo III, the building owner, and Jay Weiss, the primary leaseholder. These charges claimed that the owner and landlord were responsible for the building code violations caused by their tenant.[20] They both pleaded guilty in May 1992, agreeing to perform community service and paying $150,000 towards a community center for Hondurans in the Bronx.[21][22]

A $5 billion lawsuit was also filed by the victims and their families against the owner, landlord, city, and some building material manufacturers. That suit was settled in July 1995 for $15.8 million or $163,000 per victim. The lesser amount was due mostly to unrelated financial difficulties of the landlord.[23][24]

Legacy edit

The street outside the former Happy Land social club has been renamed "The Plaza of the Eighty-Seven" in memory of the victims.[25] Five of the victims were students at nearby Theodore Roosevelt High School, which had a memorial service for the victims in April 1990.[26] A memorial was erected directly across the street from the former establishment with the names of all 87 victims inscribed on it.[27]

The plot of the Law & Order season 2 episode "Heaven" was inspired by the Happy Land fire.

Additionally, the band Duran Duran wrote the song "Sin of the City", which appeared on the band's 1993 self-titled album, about the fire.[28] The song "Happyland" on Joe Jackson's album Night and Day II, released in 2000, was also inspired by this event.[29] In the Jay-Z song "You, Me, Him and Her" he raps "The fire I spit burnt down Happy Land/ Social club, we unapproachable thugs."[30]

In the aftermath of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland, California, in December 2016, which killed 36 people, comparisons were drawn to this fire. The Oakland fire also occurred in a space that was being used for parties in violation of law and lease agreement. Investigations of the law and lease agreements were pending at the time of that fire as well.[31]

See also edit

References edit

  1. ^ a b c Blumenthal, Ralph (March 26, 1990). "Fire in The Bronx; 87 Die in Blaze at Illegal Club; Police Arrest Ejected Patron; Worst New York Fire Since 1911". New York Times.
  2. ^ a b c d e Diebel, Matthew (March 25, 2015). "Happy Land, Triangle Shirtwaist fires happened same day, 79 years apart". USA TODAY. Retrieved December 7, 2016.
  3. ^ a b c Barbanel, Josh (March 27, 1990). "Fire in The Bronx; Tracing the Club's Owners". New York Times.
  4. ^ Bennet, James (April 21, 1992). "Judge to Start Weighing Charges That Owners Were at Fault in Happy Land Fire". New York Times. Retrieved July 21, 2012.
  5. ^ McKinley, James C. Jr. (March 26, 1990). "Fire in the Bronx; Happy Land Reopened and Flourished After Being Shut as a Hazard". New York Times.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Roberts, Sam (September 14, 2016). "Julio Gonzalez, Arsonist Who Killed 87 at New York Club in '90, Dies at 61". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved December 5, 2016.
  7. ^ a b c Maykuth, Andrew (March 27, 1990). "N.Y. fire suspect described as 'down to his last hope'". The Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved December 5, 2016.
  8. ^ Celona, Larry; Marques, Stuart; et al. (March 17, 2015). "Fire kills 87 people at the Happy Land Social Club in the Bronx in 1990". Daily News. Retrieved July 10, 2016.
  9. ^ a b c d "Fire kills 87 people at the Happy Land Social Club in 1990". NY Daily News. Retrieved December 5, 2016.
  10. ^ Francisco Avila, Jose. "The Garifunas and Happy Land Social Club Fire" (PDF). Garifuna Coalition USA, Inc. Retrieved October 19, 2015.
  11. ^ Negron, Edna (August 18, 1991). "Club Tragedy an Awakening for Garifuna". Daily News.
  12. ^ TREADWELL, DAVID; GOLDMAN, JOHN J. (March 26, 1990). "Blaze Kills 87 in N.Y. Social Club : Fire: An employee's ex-boyfriend is arrested on arson and murder charges. Nightspot was operating illegally". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved May 25, 2017.
  13. ^ Tomasson, Robert E. (July 9, 1991). "Shock Lingers as Happy Land Trial Starts". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved December 5, 2016.
  14. ^ Julio González, DIN# 91-A-7544 Archived April 27, 2002, at the Wayback Machine via New York State Inmate Population Information Search
  15. ^ Bailey, Maria (March 25, 2016). "A look back at the fatal Happy Land fire 26 years later". New York Daily News. Retrieved July 10, 2016.
  16. ^ a b Moore, Tina; Tracy, Thomas (March 18, 2015). "Happy Land mass murderer Julio Gonzalez denied parole". Daily News. Retrieved July 10, 2016.
  17. ^ Annese, John (September 14, 2016). "Arsonist who torched 87 people at Happy Land club dead at 61". New York Daily News.
  18. ^ McFadden, Robert D. (November 16, 1990). "Prosecutor Clears Landlords In Fatal Social Club Arson". New York Times.
  19. ^ Logan, Andy (April 23, 1990). "Happy Land". The New Yorker.
  20. ^ "Misdemeanors Charged in Happy Land Fire". New York Times. February 2, 1991. Retrieved July 20, 2012.
  21. ^ Hevesi, Dennis (May 9, 1992). "Guilty Plea By Landlord In Fire Case". New York Times. Retrieved July 21, 2012.
  22. ^ Behnken, Brian D.; Wendt, Simon; Garcia, Doris (2013). "Chapter 7: Transnational Ethnic Identities and Garinagu Political Organizations in the Diaspora by Doris Garcia". Crossing Boundaries Ethnicity, Race, and National Belonging in a Transnational World. Lanham: Lexington Books. ISBN 978-0-739-18131-7. OCLC 852158416.
  23. ^ Gonzalez, Juan (March 24, 1995). "Little Aid Seen In Club Arson". New York Daily News. Retrieved July 21, 2012.
  24. ^ Lueck, Thomas J. (July 8, 1995). "Slide From Riches for Landlord in Happy Land Case". New York Times. Retrieved July 21, 2012.
  25. ^ Russo, Gina. "A History of Deadly Fires and their Memorials". The Station Fire Memorial Foundation. Archived from the original on February 19, 2015. Retrieved February 18, 2015.
  26. ^ "'Airtight case' against Happy Land arsonist in 1990". NY Daily News. March 17, 2015. Retrieved December 6, 2016.
  27. ^ "Crotona Parkway Malls". Happy Land Memorial. Retrieved February 18, 2015.
  28. ^ Daw, Robbie. "Duran Duran's 'The Wedding Album' Turns 20: Backtracking". Idolator. SpinMedia. Retrieved January 14, 2016.
  29. ^ Nicoll, Gregory (December 2, 2000). "Steppin' out again". Creative Loafing. Retrieved July 19, 2016.
  30. ^ "JAY-Z (Ft. Amil, Beanie Sigel & Memphis Bleek) – You, Me, Him and Her".
  31. ^ "Oakland Fire Grim Reminder of Deadly Happy Land Blaze in 1990". NBC New York. December 7, 2016. Retrieved December 7, 2016.

External links edit

40°50′35.5″N 73°53′9″W / 40.843194°N 73.88583°W / 40.843194; -73.88583