Saturday, January 09, 2010

The Happy Land Fire

The Happy Land Fire was an arson fire which killed 87 people trapped in an unlicensed social club called "Happy Land" in New York City, on March 25, 1990. Most of the victims were ethnic Hondurans celebrating Carnival.[1] Unemployed Cuban refugee Julio González, whose former girlfriend was employed at the club, was arrested shortly after and ultimately convicted of arson and murder.

Before the blaze, Happy Land was ordered closed for building code violations in November 1988. Violations included no fire exits, alarms or sprinkler system. No follow-up by the fire department was documented.

That evening González had argued with his former girlfriend Lydia Feliciano, a coat check girl at the club, urging her to quit. She claimed that she had had enough of him and wanted nothing to do with him anymore. González tried to fight back and was ejected by the bouncer. He was heard to scream drunken threats in the process. Julio was enraged, not just because of Lydia, but since he had recently lost his job at a lamp factory, was impoverished, and had virtually no companions. He returned to the establishment with a plastic container of gasoline which he found on the ground and took to a gas station to fill, which he spread on the only staircase into the club. Two matches were then used to ignite the gasoline.

The fire exits had been blocked to prevent people from entering without paying the cover charge. In the panic that ensued, a few people escaped by breaking a metal gate over one door.
González then returned home, took off his gasoline-soaked clothes and fell asleep. He was arrested the following afternoon after authorities interviewed Feliciano and learned of the previous night's argument. Once advised of his rights, he admitted to starting the blaze. A medical examination found him to be sane.

Found guilty on August 19, 1991, of 87 counts of arson and 87 counts of murder, González was sentenced to 174 twenty-five year sentences, to be served concurrently. It was the most substantial prison term ever imposed in the state of New York. He will be eligible for parole in March 2015.

The street outside the former Happy Land social club (which was located on the northwest corner of Southern Boulevard and East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx) has been renamed "The Plaza of the Eighty-Seven" as a means of memorializing the victims. Five of the victims were students at nearby Theodore Roosevelt High School, which held a memorial service for the victims in April 1990.

The event was the subject of the Duran Duran song, "Sin of the City" (where the song lyrics say 89 people died, when in fact it was 87), a Joe Jackson song, "Happyland", and Tom Russell's song "A Dollar's Worth of Gasoline" from his Hurricane Season CD. It was also mentioned in the Jay-Z song, "You, Me, Him, and Her". A fictionalized version of the case, where it was an arson intended to intimidate the Latino community, was featured on Law & Order.