Death in a towering inferon

BOB LEVIN January 12 1987

Death in a towering inferon

BOB LEVIN January 12 1987

Death in a towering inferon


It was 3:30 p.m. on New Year’s Eve and, at the Dupont Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, vacationers relaxed in their rooms or packed the ground-floor casino Walking through the lobby, Kevin Gibson saw smoke billowing from the ballroom. He and his friend Sue Ravnsborg both 26, of Wetaskiwin, Alta., said thaï they heard no alarm and noticed thaï gamblers played on behind the closed glass doors of the adjoining casinodoors apparently shut as a set procedure to prevent the theft of cash during r commotion. “People were still sitting there playing the slots with the smokt swirling around them,” recalled Gibson an elementary schoolteacher. “It was like the Titanic.” When Gibson and Ravnsborg saw two bellhops begin tt run, they followed them outside. There a distraught man in his 60s cried, “Mj God, my God, my wife’s in there.”

As flames and smoke enveloped the 22-storey highrise, a few guests jumped from their balconies while others climbed down on tied-together sheets: Lucille McKee, 69, and her friend Laura St. Martin, both of Ottawa, said tha\ they struggled up the stairs from the

fth floor to the roof, where a helicoper airlifted them away. “I thought /as finished,” said McKee. Rejean Lalarche, 42, and his wife, Dianne Deourt, 28, of Laval, Que., said that the Poking smoke trapped them on the 8th floor. The couple huddled there for wo hours with wet towels over their aces before rescuers led them to safety. The doctor told me that [the towel] is he thing that saved our lives,” LaJarche said, after being treated for moke inhalation. He was one of the ucky ones. As workers searched the moldering wreckage at week’s end, ’uerto Rican officials said that at least 5 people lay dead, including two Torono women.

The tragedy in Puerto Rico, a selfgoverning commonwealth of the United States, was the second-worst hotel fire n U.S. history. It came at the height he Caribbean holiday season at »each-side luxury hotel filled to near ca»acity with about 1,000 guests, mostly Americans. Many of the bodies were ^und sitting upright in the casino, Tarred beyond recognition. Others died LÍ the elevators. The Canadian dead cere Jean Fogel, an executive secretary

at a brokerage firm, and Lily Snider, a schoolteacher, both in their late 40s— old friends who had travelled together each winter to assorted sunspots. Michael Francomb, a Canadian consul general sent to San Juan from Atlanta, said last weekend that he had accounted for the rest of the 76 Canadians registered at the hotel.

Puerto Rican authorities strongly suspected arson. Representatives of the hotel, a former member of The Sheraton Corp. chain now owned by Hotel Systems International of Anaheim, Calif., had been involved in a bitter contract dispute with the local Teamsters union, which represents 250 of the 450 hotel employees.

And the fire, which broke out almost at the same time as three explosions—witnesses were not certain which came first —started just 10 minutes after workers meeting in the ballroom had voted to strike at midnight. Adding to suspicions were three small fires at the Dupont Plaza earlier in the past 10 days and a spate of rumors that, as Puerto Rico governor Rafael Hernández Colón put it, “something was going to happen” at the hotel.

Some of the rumors were explicit: Freda Fenner of Detroit, who was staying at a guesthouse next door, said that

a worker there told her the night before to avoid the Dupont Plaza because of the labor dispute. “Don’t even think about going there,” he told her. “There is going to be a bombing.” Alfredo Vertz, a 38-year-old accountant from New York City, said that he received an anonymous phone call in his room at the Dupont Plaza on the morning of the fire. A woman said, “I’m going to burn you and everyone else in the hotel.”

Vertz said that he reported the incident to a hotel employee, who informed

him that other guests had received similar calls but that there was no cause for alarm. And according to Red Cross officials, Wanda Paquette of Sudbury, Ont., told them that on the same morning she met a couple who were checking out of the hotel because of the bomb rumors. Paquette said that she called her travel

agent but was told there was nothing to worry about. Despite all such assurances, however, hotel officials apparently took the threats seriously, if not seriously enough: in recent days they had hired 30 extra security guards.

Union officials denied that any of their members had set fire to the hotel, and they offered a $15,000 reward for information on what caused the blaze. Rene Rodriguez, president of the Teamsters local, also maintained that there was nothing sinister about recent union radio advertisements that warned that, if management did not change its attitude, the Dupont Plaza “will not be a good place” to celebrate New Year’s Eve. All the ads meant, said Rodriguez, was that replacement workers who might be employed by management would not give the normal level of service. In any case, there were unconfirmed reports that Puerto Rican officials, aided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), had found three incendiary devices among the ashes. An FBI spokesman rejected the report, but Puerto Rican justice secretary Hector Rivera Cruz said, “I’m not denying that.”

Some Canadian survivors complained that Wardair Holidays, the tour organizer that booked 50 of the Canadian

guests, including victims Fogel and Snider, should not have sent them to the hotel in the middle of a labor dispute. “They knew of the strike situation,” said Otto Farkas, a Montreal jewelry manufacturer who, along with his wife, Rose, was rescued from the roof by helicopter. “They should have given us the option of going to a different hotel.” A Wardair spokesman declined comment on how much company officials knew about the labor unrest. Blaine Speigel, Fogel’s 27-year-old nephew, said that he was “really angry” with Wardair for booking his aunt into a hotel without a sprinkler system. Puerto Rican law does not require hotels to have sprinkler systems, although governor Hernández Colón said that he will now seek to implement a sprinkler law.

Other survivors lashed out at Dupont Plaza management for sounding no alarms and mounting no organized evacuation. “The owners of that hotel have a lot to answer for,” said Gibson of Alberta. Gibson, however, had praise for some of the rescue workers—particularly after the people trapped on the balconies had begun to panic. “A guy—I don’t know who he was—managed to scale the arch that curves up in front to get to people on the third, fourth and fifth floors,” said Gibson. “There were some real heroes.” Donald Meakin, 52, of Napanee, Ont., a guest at the hotel who was on a tour of San Juan when the fire broke out, later watched from across the street as the hotel burned and was impressed with civil authorities. “They were really trying to cope,” Meakin said. “There was always somebody in authority, somebody to talk to.”

In the aftermath of the fire, most survivors of San Juan’s towering inferno took shelter at other San Juan hotels. Puerto Rican officials gave them $300 each for necessities and the Dupont Plaza provided another $100 per family. But Wardair officials said that no arrangements had been made for a special flight home. “There’s no reason,” said Colin Rush of Wardair. “We don’t have hundreds of people banging our door down saying they want to go home.” Meanwhile, outside the burnedout Dupont Plaza, the flags of Puerto Rico, the United States and Canada flew at half-staff on Friday. Inside, reporters toured the pool area just below the casino and saw a grisly scene: bodies protruding from the rubble as white-masked emergency workers searched for others—a grim reminder of a holiday no survivor will soon forget.