Dupont Plaza Hotel arson
The fire was set by three disgruntled employees of the hotel who were in the middle of a labor dispute with the owners of the hotel. The fire claimed 98 lives and caused 140 injuries. It is the most catastrophic hotel fire in Puerto Rican history and the second deadliest in the history of the United States.
The Dupont Plaza opened in 1963 as the Puerto Rico-Sheraton and was operated by the Sheraton hotel company until 1980, just before Sheraton imposed significant fire-safety measures in its hotels throughout the world. Before national fire safety requirements were enacted in 1990, most hotels had implemented fire safety measures based on local regulations and ordinances, which in some localities were lax, despite fires and fire-related deaths occurring at hotels frequently during that era. In June 1985, the Dupont Plaza was inspected by the local fire department and was found to have deficiencies in its safety systems, including malfunctioning equipment and lack of evacuation and emergency plans. That same year, there were 7,500 reported fires in hotels and motels across the U.S., with 85 deaths and $56 million in damages ($123 million in present day terms). The fire sprinkler system, which was not criticized in the fire department's report, was not automated, as was in 95% of hotels across the U.S. at that time.
The employees of the hotel were in the middle of a labor dispute with hotel management, with negotiations between the hotel and the employees' union, Local 901 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, starting in October 1986. The union represented 250 out of the hotel's 450 total employees. One of the main issues causing the dispute was the alleged plan of the hotel to terminate 60 union members from employment, to be substituted by non-union employees. Thirty additional security guards were added by the hotel's management in the week of the fire following three smaller fires at the hotel: one in a linen closet, one in a pile of cardboard boxes, and another in a roll of carpeting. The situation between the hotel's management and the union became so tense that during the week of the fire, desk clerks, taxi drivers, and food stand employees around the area were advising tourists to stay away from the hotel and its casino. One week after the fire, the Governor of Puerto Rico, Rafael Hernández Colón, stated that, according to preliminary reports, in the days before the fire "information was going around that something was going to happen".
The employees' union called a meeting held in the hotel's ballroom for the afternoon of December 31, 1986. At the conclusion of the meeting, around 3:00 pm, the 125 members present voted to go on strike later that day starting at midnight. At the time, the hotel was estimated to be at near-peak occupancy, with 900 to 1,000 guests.
Three union members—Héctor Escudero Aponte, José Rivera López, and Arnaldo Jiménez Rivera—planned to set several fires with the intention of scaring tourists who wanted to stay at the hotel. At around 3:30 pm, they placed opened cans of a flammable liquid used in chafing dishes in a storage room filled with new furniture purchased for the hotel, adjacent to the ballroom on the ground floor of the hotel. While some of the labor organizers created a distraction by staging a fight just outside the doors to the ballroom, three men set the fuel alight. The fire ignited the furniture and quickly burned out of control, growing to massive proportions and flashing over.
After flashing over in the ballroom (which witnesses confused with an explosion), the super-heated gases swept up the grand staircase into the lobby of the hotel. From there, the fire was sucked into the open doors of the casino by the smoke-eaters (devices in the ceiling that sucked the smoke from cigarettes out of the room) present throughout the casino. With over 150 guests estimated to be present in the casino when the fire broke out, most of the deaths occurred in that area, as guests discovered that the emergency exit doors were locked and that the only other egress from the casino was through a pair of inward-opening doors. Several months before the fire, hotel management had had the emergency exit doors locked to prevent theft. Some casino patrons pressed against the doors to no avail. Others leaped from the second-story casino through plate-glass windows to the pool deck below, suffering several injuries. Others perished from smoke inhalation on upper floors of the casino. Still others were killed as they rode the elevators to the lobby, only to discover their path blocked by the fire when the doors opened. Those who were able to do so climbed to the hotel's roof, where an improvised but ultimately successful helicopter rescue, including civilian, Commonwealth Police, Puerto Rico National Guard, U.S. Coast Guard, and U.S. Navy helicopters from the Roosevelt Roads Naval Air Station, transported those trapped to safety.
The Puerto Rico Fire Department was dispatched at around 3:40 pm and 13 firetrucks, 100 firefighters, and 35 ambulances responded. Firefighters extinguished the flames three hours later, although black smoke continued through the night.
The total number of deaths from the fire was 98, mostly by burns, and 140 injured. Most of the victims were burned beyond recognition and their belongings destroyed, with only a small percentage readily identifiable bodies. 84 bodies were found in the casino, 5 in the lobby, 3 in an elevator, and 2 at a pool-side bar outside the hotel.
An investigation by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration revealed 25 safety violations, including a lack of emergency exit doors in the casino area leading to the deaths of 84 trapped guests.
The teamsters union representing the hotel employees denied that it or any of its members were related to the fire, and offered a $15,000 reward for information that would help the investigation of the fire. Three members of the union were convicted of murder for starting the fire, and were sentenced to 99 years in prison. Of the three employees accused of the fire, only one, Héctor Escudero Aponte, is still in prison. Armando Jimenez and José Francisco Rivera Lopez were released from federal prison in 2001 and 2002, respectively.
Attorneys arrived from the United States to represent victims of the hotel fire. The lawyers were from firms whose past liability cases included the MGM Grand Hotel fire in Las Vegas and a Stouffer’s Hotel fire in New York State. Shortly after, fire lawsuits were filed throughout the United States. These were consolidated in the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico in San Juan. The 2,300 plaintiffs, who had filed 264 separate lawsuits against 230 defendants, sought a total of $1.8 billion in damages. The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit referred to lawsuit as a “litigatory monster.”
Raymond Acosta was assigned as trial judge for the claims, and he divided the trial into phases. Representative plaintiffs were selected and the first phase against the so-called DuPont-Family defendants, who included the corporation who owned the hotel and some 40 limited partnerships, corporations, and individuals who the plaintiffs claimed controlled the hotel, went to trial on March 15, 1989. This phase was settled on May 11, 1989 for between $85 million and $100 million.
The second phase in which the 107 defendants consisting of suppliers and other product liability parties went to trial about 45 days later. After nine months of trial, the Court directed verdicts of no liability in favor of three defendants: Johnson Controls, Inc., represented by Chicago’s Arnstein & Lehr, LLP; Barber Colman, Inc., represented by Boston’s Cooley, Manion, Moore & Jones; and Quantum Chemical, represented by Louisville, Kentucky’s Brown, Todd & Heyburn. A number of the other defendants had settled and trial resumed against 36 remaining defendants on May 14, 1990.
After 15 months of trial, the jury reached its verdict following one week of deliberations. Of the 10 remaining defendants the jury found five of them not liable. In all, payments for the deaths and injuries totaled more than $210 million and court records show that the case involved more than 1,000,000 documents.
The Dupont Plaza Hotel fire and other fires of the era gave rise to several amendments to security policies in hotels around the world. One of the biggest problems at the time was the lack of standard fire safety requirements. In 1987, there were four major fire codes across the United States with over 1,800 variations because of local codes and ordinances, with one code having significant fire protection requirements, and another having nothing.
On September 25, 1990, three years after the disaster, the United States enacted the Hotel and Motel Fire Safety Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-391), requiring all hotels and other public accommodations wanting to accommodate federal workers or hold federally-funded activities to have smoke detectors in all guest rooms and have sprinkler systems installed and working if the building was more than three stories. U.S. Representative Sherwood L. Boehlert stated that the law was one of the first times the U.S government took "direct action to protect the public at large from the danger of fire". The United States Fire Administration has credited the Dupont Plaza fire along with the MGM Grand fire in 1980 as the catalysts which helped get the safety requirements signed into law.
The Dupont Plaza reopened in 1994 as the San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino after a massive overhaul effort.
- History of hotel fires in the United States
- Winecoff Hotel fire, deadliest hotel fire in United States history
- Skyscraper fire
- Fire safety
- List of fires
- Un héroe 25 años después on El Vocero; Camilo Torres, Raúl (December 28, 2011)
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- Chicago Tribune, May 15, 1990
- NFPA Journal, 1999
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- Video of rescue operation on Rescue 911:
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