Fires in History: The Happy Land Fire

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Fires in History Happy Land Fire

In April 1990, Feliciano thought she was free of Julio Gonzalez. They broke up. They were done. However, on March 25, 1990, he came to the Happy Land Social Club in the Bronx where she worked, by 3 am, 87 people were killed.

The Scene

Julio Gonzalez, a Cuban refugee, was down on his luck in 1990. He lost his job. He lost his girlfriend. He was close to losing his apartment. Gonzalez had nothing to lose when he went to the Happy Land Social Club on March 25, 1990.

In November 1988, the Happy Land Social Club was down on its luck as well. The fire department had ordered them to close because of building code violations. The violations included a lack of fire exits, alarms, and fire sprinklers. The fire department closed them down, but did not continue to follow up. A few weeks after their closure, they re-opened. Richard Travers, deputy Chief at the time said in an interview that task force inspectors issued an order to vacate, checked twice to make sure they vacated, and moved on to other buildings that violated building code. This building, like many others, closed until the inspectors moved on, and re-opened.

The Fire

The evening of March 25, 1990, Gonzalez went to his ex-girlfriend, Felciciano's work to talk. She was a coat check girl at Happy Land Social Club. He was trying to convince her to quit, and she just wanted him to leave. She begged him to leave, and eventually a bouncer escorted him out. He stood outside the only means of egress yelling at the people in the building. He shouted, "I'm going to take this place down."

Soon afterwards, he left and came back with a $1 worth of gas from a gas station. He spread it along the front steps and lit a fire.

A stampede began, and many people were trampled to death. Others died of asphyxiation and the smoke and fire took over. In the end, 87 people died, and only 6 people survived. Feliciano was one of the survivors.

The Aftermath

The fire was one of the largest death toll fires in New York. It was the largest since the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, until the September 11 attacks.

Gonzalez returned home after setting the fire. He removed his gasoline soaked clothes and fell asleep. He was arrested the next day when investigators learned about the argument. He admitted to the event. Gonzalez was charged with 174 counts of murder, two for every victim. He was found guilty of 87 counts of arson and 87 counts of murder. He was sentenced to 25 years for each count, totaling 4,350 years.

The street outside the club was re-named The Plaza of the eighty-seven.

 

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