The Big Event: 1990 – Happy Land Fire


happy land bodies_001.JPGIn recent memory, a terrible fire broke out in the Ghost Ship, a warehouse converted into an artist collective in Oakland, California. The fire killed 36 people. The tragedy evoked painful memories of an even deadlier fire that occurred on March 25, 1990 at a place called Happy Land Social Club, in the Bronx of New York City. That fire killed 87 people, and remains one of the worst building fires in United States history.

The majority of those at Happy Land that night were Hondurans celebrating Carnival, a festivity that occurs just before Lent among Western Christians. Unlike what happened in Oakland, the Happy Land fire was an act of arson created by one vengeful man, Julio Gonzalez.

On the night of the incident, a drunken Gonzalez tried to get back with his ex-girlfriend who was a coat check girl at the club. She wanted nothing to do with him and he was soon kicked out of the club by a bouncer. Gonzalez then went down to a local gas station and filled up a plastic container with $1 worth of gasoline. When he returned to the club, he poured the gas all over the only staircase he had access to and lit it aflame with a few matches.

julio gonzalez.jpg

According to a 1990 NY Times article, 68 of the victims were found upstairs while the other nineteen died on the first floor or the stairs. The deaths happened quickly. Because the flames smothered all of the oxygen in the room, most of the victims of the fire died of smoke inhalation, showing no burn signs.

One sad note about this fire is that, like the Oakland fire, the club was supposed to be closed due to building-code violations in 1988 for no alarms, no sprinklers and a lack of fire exits. Why it was not closed is apparently due to a lack of following up by the Fire Department.

Gonzalez was tried and convicted of 174 counts of murder and 87 and given the maximum of 25 years to life for each count. He later died in prison of a heart attack on September 13, 2016.

Below is a video that takes you back to the time it happened and gives us some visuals as to the damage done and the scene overall. In short: Tragic.

Published by aaronpkahle

I like a lot of things but 90s American pop culture is my jam.

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