Horrific Puerto Rico Hotel Fire Ignored by Unions over 25 Years Later

The AFL-CIO recognized on Monday the victims who perished in New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire 102 years ago. The fire killed 146 immigrant garment workers. A ceremony was held in Greenwich Village last week memorializing the victims.

 The AFL-CIO’s website says, “Most were trapped and died behind the building’s locked doors and others plunged to their deaths as they jumped from windows from the eighth floor and above,” adding, “It also galvanized a movement to raise workplace safety standards and enact other labor law reforms.”

The labor union’s website also mentions two factory fires in Bangladesh that happened in January and November, which killed 119 workers in total. However, the AFL-CIO conveniently forgets one particular hotel fire that killed 97 people over 25 years ago. The fire was set by three disgruntled hotel workers.

On the last day of the year in 1986, hundreds of American tourists planned to spend their New Years Eve at San Juan, Puerto Rico’s DuPont Plaza Hotel. While some people were in the rooms preparing for the evening’s festivities, many of the guests packed themselves into the luxury hotel’s second floor casino.

However labor relations between the hotel’s management and its unionized workers were coming to a head during that period. According to the New York Times

Minutes before the fire erupted on Dec. 31, a meeting in the hotel ballroom involving employees belonging to Local 901 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters broke up. At that meeting, unionists unanimously rejected a management offer and decided to strike at midnight.

Escuerdo Aponte, a hotel worker and union member, returned to the hotel’s ground floor ballroom after the union meeting recessed. He then torched a pile of stacked packaged furniture in the room.

At 3:40 PM the calls for help began to come into the local San Juan fire stations. The fire had exploded across the hotel’s lower floors and blocked all the exits, including the casino doors. Hundreds of guests and staff inside were trapped. Thick noxious smoke spiraled up the stairways and elevator shafts. Those who managed to escape the flames in the casino below did so by smashing windows with stools and leaping two stories to the pool deck below. 

“For a short period of time the casino turned into a mob scene—chaos. People were on fire, screaming. Black Jack table stools were starting to fly through the windows. People were tossing them out the windows to see if they could break them,” said one survivor of the hotel fire years later on the TV program Rescue 911. “A lot of these people were tossing [the stools] out the windows to see if they could break them. Bodies—people started flinging themselves out the window. So that’s when I decided to go out the window…when I looked up everybody was on fire,” he said. 

The fire engines' ladders could reach no higher than the second floor of the 22-story hotel.  Some guests trapped on the upper floors tied bed sheets together in attempts to climb down, while others carefully tip-toed across building ledges and scaled guest room balconies to get to the roof. Helicopters flew guests from the hotel roof to safety. More than 140 people suffered injuries that day.

 On January 2, 1987,  97 bodies were removed from the charred remains of the once famed luxury hotel.  “Most of the victims were burned beyond recognition and were found in the casino area,” states one government study of the incident.

One survivor told the CT Post, "The people were piled standing up in front of one of the doors all stuck together. It wasn't good," he recalled, his voice betraying his guilt all these years later. "Most were standing straight up. They were all burnt, I couldn't identify anyone."

Within three weeks of the fire, three men were arrested.  Aponte was charged with, "setting fire to the Dupont Plaza Hotel on New Year's Eve, in agreement with others." José Rivera López, and Arnaldo Jiménez Rivera were also arrested and charged.

According to reports, the three planned on setting numerous fires in the hotel with the intent to scare the guests away. Aponte is still serving time in federal prison. Jimenez and Lopez were released from prison in 2001 and 2002, respectively, after massive sentence reductions in appeals court. To this day, union officials deny any involvement with the horrific incident and make nary a mention of it, when memorializing victims of fires involving labor workers.


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