Happy Land Social Club Fire

25th March 1990 marked a 79-year anniversary in New York City, on that day in 1911 New York saw one of its worst building fires at Triangle Shirt factory which saw 146 young people die in the tragic fire, this inspired many changes in the fire code and safety laws of New York City. In Happy Land Social Club that night club goers packed in to continue the Carnival celebrations among the Garifuna American Community, the music pumped, and people danced away unaware that 87 people would fall victim to another tragic fire as Julio Gonzales set fire to the club to take revenge on his ex-girlfriend Lydia Feliciano.

The building that housed Happy Land was owned by Alex DiLorenzo III, Lorenzo was leasing the building to Jay Weiss the then husband of actress Kathleen Turner. In 1987 Weiss’ company Little Peach Realty Inc leased the building to Elias Colon on 7th October 1987 with the rates at $1,500 the first year, $1,650 the second and $1,950 for the third.  The business relationship soured, and it was reported that Weiss had been trying to evict Colon for non-payment of rent, court papers concerning the rent dispute showed that on 15th February 1989 a note had been stuck on the door of Happy Land demanding a payment of $3,074 within three days for outstanding rent from 1st December 1987.

In November 1988 Happy Land had been ordered to close due to several violations including no sprinkler system on the first floor, an illegally constructed second floor added to the building, a lack of fire exits and no alarms. Despite the seriousness of the violations there was no documented follow-up.

Through his company Weiss had asked for an eviction notice on 6th September 1989, the judge validated the eviction warrant, but Colon filed to stop the proceedings claiming he had not seen the court papers. Colon maintained that his rent had been paid and the judge granted a stay of eviction warrant. Papers dated 12th March 1990 assert that Colon “made substantial improvements to the premises with the approval and consent of the petitioner”. An eviction trial was due to start on 28th March 1990.

Julio Gonzalez was born on 10th October 1954 in Holguin, Oriente Province, Cuba. Gonzalez served three years in prison in Cuba in the 1970s for desertion from the Cuban Army and in 1980 he faked a criminal record as a drug dealer to gain passage in the Mariel boatlift. The boatlift brought him to Florida, where he then travelled to Wisconsin and Arkansas before settling in New York. By the 90s he had been working at a lamp factory in Queens where he packed boxes and was in an on-off relationship with a coat check attendant and occasional bartender at Happy Land social club 45-year-old Lydia Feliciano for six years.

In the weeks leading up to the fire Gonzalez lost his job at the factory and was struggling to pay his rent and was hustling on the streets of the South Bronx.

On 25th March 1990 at 2:30am as the Carnival celebrations continued at Happy Land Gonzalez was sat upstairs with Feliciano, he had been drinking and the couple had been arguing, the argument turned to her employment status at the club, he wanted her to quit but she had refused, she told him how she had several potential boyfriends and that her family had been pressuring her to leave him, after this she tried to leave him at the bar leading him to grab her in order to make her stay, a bouncer had  to intervene and remove him he began to shout at the bouncer “she’s my woman not yours!” he was led out, he continued to shout and argue in front of other club goers until he left, just before leaving he shouted “Regresare ha cerrae esto!” (I will be back! I’ll shut this place down!).

Gonzalez walked off into the night and many assumed the commotion was over, with the bouncer then returning to work the second-floor celebrations.

Gonzalez walked three blocks away to an Amoco gas station at 174th St. and Southern Boulevard, on the walk he found an empty one-gallon Blackhawk Hydraulic Jack Oil container. He entered the gas station where 23-year-old Lehman College freshman Edward Porras was working his first day at the gas station and tried to refuse service initially, but Gonzalez told him his car had broken down, another customer overheard and vouched for Gonzalez saying that he was “all right”. He bought a dollars-worth of gasoline, when he found out that he was the one who had sold Gonzalez the gas Porras said, “I don’t know why this happened to me!”.

At 3:30am Gonzalez returned to Happy Land with the gas, he approached 50 feet from the corner to the street level entrance, the doorway was empty and most of the customers were upstairs enjoying the DJ music, he proceeded to spill the gasoline onto the floor and steps of the entrance hallway, he was seen by customers on the top of the stairs while he waited in the shadows, but no one paid him any mind.

Happy Land after the fire

Once he had spilled all the gasoline, he took a step back and lit two matches, he threw them onto the floor making the gas ignite instantly. The flames engulfed the hallway as Gonzalez watched from across the street.

Back inside the club Feliciano had become aware of the fire and began to scream “Fuego!” (fire!) from the coat check area, 23-year-old Roberto Argueta who had been at Happy Land since midnight was grabbing his coat and preparing to leave with his friend Orbin Nunez Galea when he heard Feliciano’s cries, both saw the flames had overtaken the entrance way and saw no way out until Feliciano led them to another door that was rarely used, when they arrived at the door they realised an outside metal gate was left in a down position blocking the door from opening, but one of the men managed to frantically lift the barrier gate enough to open the door, leading the group to run out to safety on Southern Boulevard.

Newspaper covering the fire and the mourners confronting Feliciano for not getting help when she left the fire

Upstairs in the club people remained unaware as the fire was enclosed between the entrance and separating door, as it burnt the heat eventually heated up the separating door causing it to glow. Ruben Valladarez the DJ was first to see it and alerted the crowd by stopping the music and raising the lights. People began to exit crowding around the one exit route, some tried to escape until they were turned back by the thick smoke and heavy heat. Valladarez managed to escape by running quickly through the burning hallway and crawling between the legs of others that were trapped, after a struggle he was able to escape and crash through the door leading out to the street, he laid on the sidewalk burned with his clothes melting off, although injured he was one of the few Happy Land fire survivors.

The smoke from this type of fire is filled with many dangers aside from the heat and statistically victims of these fires die of inhalation before they’re burnt. As the fire burned it would have been loaded with carbon monoxide, aldehydes, cyanide and gasses that would emit from burning wood and plastic. All of this in the air being inhaled would cause almost immediate unconsciousness and eventually death from inhalation.

On the second floor there was no ventilation due to the lack of windows, which also contributed to keeping toxic gasses and smoke contained, as the front door was crashed open the fire was blown and exploded up the stairs making it completely fill the upstairs room. People screamed and fled in terror until the only option was for people to drop to the ground in a bid to get some extra air in the smoke-filled building while others had no chance and succumbed to the blaze while sat at their tables, with some still clutching their drinks when they were found. Many of the victims had severe burns but all had died of smoke inhalation.

Pedestrians outside of the club heard the muffled screams of those trapped on the second floor while Vallardarez lay writhing on the street in pain. The fire department received the call at 3:41am and were on scene within three minutes, fire apparatus and Ladder Company 58 arrived on scene and entered the building, one firefighter said of how quiet it was inside saying, “There were no screams. There was no sound at all”. As they extinguished the fire on the lower level, the bodies started to pile up with a total of 19 bodies found on the stairs and lower level. More firefighters headed in to tackle the flames upstairs as they entered the room, they noticed that the floor felt “strange” under their feet as they tripped over what felt like piles of clothes or unknown bundles, as they aimed their flashlights it soon became clear that they were walking and crawling over bodies that were piled up, Firefighter Craig Bucceiri of Ladder Company 33 said “what we saw was not unlike the after battle scene of any war movie. Only this was real”.

Responders working the scene

As the building was ventilated of the smoke and the fire completely extinguished the level of casualty truly became clear as they began to remove bodies. It was such a traumatic task for the firefighters that special units were then deployed to all the firehouses of the responding firefighters to offer help with any lingering emotional stress as well as psychological counselling being offered to all other rescue crews on scene. Lt. Richard J. Bittles of Ladder company 58 described the toll on the firefighters saying, “in their eyes was the hollow distant look of men who could not believe what had occurred”.

As the ash settled and smoke cleared the true magnitude of the tragedy became glaringly clear. The media and city officials flocked to the scene to assess the situation and how it unfolded, First Deputy Mayor Norman Siegel said “It was shocking. None of the bodies I saw showed signs of burns”. The questions of accountability were beginning to be raised as Happy Lands reputation as a known illegal establishment caused an inquiry into the city’s role in the unsafe building being open for business with official records, code violations and inspection logs being combed through.

Flowers left at the burnt club after the fire

Gonzalez left the scene as first responders worked and boarded the #40 bus westbound, on the bus ride he reportedly began to cry thinking about what he had done. He went back to his apartment at 31 Buchanan Place, off Jerome Avenue, he reportedly arrived at the one-bedroom apartment at 4:15am. In his drunk and guilt-ridden state Gonzalez knocked on his neighbour Pedro Rivera’s door, Rivera’s girlfriend Carmen Melendez opened the door, Gonzalez told Melendez he had trouble while at Happy Land he began to cry and said he had killed Lydia Feliciano and burned the club down. Melendez did not believe him and thought him to be drunk and emotional, so she sent him home and told him to sleep it off, he did so, removing his gasoline-soaked clothes and fell asleep.

After speaking to witnesses and gathering information at the scene Detectives Moroney and Lugo began to piece together a rough idea of what had happened that night as the full story emerged, they spoke to Feliciano later that day and it emerged that she had left the scene and not told anyone at the fire who or where she was, no one even knew how important she was to the investigation, once it was heard that she had argued with her ex-boyfriend prompting him to leave the club angry just before the fire was started suspicion fell on Julio Gonzalez.

At 4pm on 25th March 1990 Detectives went over to investigate Gonzalez, he was still sleeping off the night before when they knocked and as he opened the door they were overwhelmed by the smell of gasoline, they immediately asked him to come to the police station to talk about the fire, he agreed and according to the detectives he did not seem too upset about it, he put on the shoes that were still soaked in gasoline and went with detectives.

Julio Gonzalez in court

Gonzalez was taken to the police station and agreed to talk about the incident, the confession was quick with Gonzalez immediately telling detectives about how he set the fire to take revenge against Lydia Feliciano for not taking him back after their break-up he said, “I don’t know it looks like something bad got into me, it looks like the devil got into me!”. He was arraigned in Bronx Criminal Court at 2am the following day on 87 counts of murder, the worst mass murder in American history at the time. Gonzalez was held without bail and taken to a local psychiatric ward and held under suicide watch.

Gonzalez’s trial began on 19th August 1991, the evidence presented against Gonzalez was overwhelming including is gasoline-soaked clothes, his admissions to friends on the night of the fire, the container he used being recovered, multiple witness accounts that saw Gonzalez outside before the fire and his lengthy confession to detectives, the court heard findings of Gonzalez’s sanity, although it was allowed it was rejected and not considered.

Lydia Feliciano testified at the trial also she said “All of a sudden I saw a flame, a low red flame that came up, I was scared because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, I said fire, but I said it to myself and quickly the flames started to go up and made a noise like dry leaves… I screamed fire! fire!” she recounted how she and the other survivors escaped the burning building and how she had jumped in a taxi, leaving the scene without calling the fire department as she feared that Gonzalez was waiting to “grab her” outside the club.

The jury deliberated for four days, on 24th August 1991 at 1pm the verdict was announced, it took five minutes to read as the foreman repeated the word “guilty” 174 times, convicting him of arson charges and 174 counts of murder two for each victim killed in the fire. Gonzalez reportedly sat transfixed in his chair as the verdict was read.

On 19th September 1991 Gonzalez was sentenced to 25 years to life on each of the 174 counts of murder. He still be released after 25 years since in New York any sentence for an act committed during a single offence must be served concurrently, not consecutively.

As the sentence was delivered hundreds of relatives and friends cheered, some saw it as somewhat of an injustice as should he serve the 25 years it would equal 3 months per victim, he would not be eligible for parole until March 2015.

As 30+ years has now passed from that tragic night the people of the Bronx still remember as a monument stands in front of 1959 Southern Boulevard, the 8ft tall concrete obelisk sits behind a high metal fence with the date of the fire and the victim’s names carved in the sides. The building where the club sat remained empty.

one of the monuments for the victims of Happy Land

Many of the victim’s families have since left New York with some returning to Honduras after a civil suit in 1995 which was settled for $15 million, presiding Judge Burton Roberts ruled that the $15 million was to be distributed to each of the victim’s families.

the stone obelisk placed in honour of the victims

In March 2015 Gonzalez applied for parole but was denied with the right to apply again in 2017, however on 13th September 2016 Gonzalez was found dead in his cell from an apparent cardiac episode at the age of 61.

one of Gonzalez’s last mug shots

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Typically, arsonists tend to fall into six categories,

Vandalism – often committed by teenagers statistically white males under 18, these fires are set in fun in some cases a slight revenge motive may be present but often there is no intent to hurt anyone with the fires often being set in empty buildings at quieter times such as the night.

Crime concealment – committed in order to cover another crime such as robbery or in extreme cases murder.

Insurance claims – often committed by small business owners under extreme financial pressure, often these fires are set in the day, but will not be set in an occupied dwelling as the only intent is to burn the building and claim the insurance money.

Excitement – these types will set a fire to enjoy it, either enjoying watching the flames or watching the operations aiding the fire with some arsonists like this being volunteer firefighters themselves as they enjoy fire. rarely will they put anyone in danger and will also set a fire in an empty building at a quieter time such as night.

Pyromaniacs – although the stereotype of “pyromaniacs like fire” puts pyromaniacs as like arsonists that set a fire in excitement they differ because pyromaniacs have no practical reason for why they set fires, often there is no gain in it for the arsonist other than satisfying an “irresistible impulse” that drives them to want to set fires, some don’t enjoy the fire itself just the act of setting it.

The final category describes Julio Gonzalez and his acts at Happy Land.

Revenge – the most common type are people who set fires to seek revenge or because of feelings of jealousy or hatred. In these cases, the arsonist will attack their family members, employers, or spouses that the arsonist feels has slighted them or hate groups can form and commit acts of arson against groups they have hatred toward such as fires being set in places of worship. With such extreme emotions involved in this type of arson they are typically the most dangerous type as they will set fires in occupied buildings as seen in Gonzalez’s behaviour in setting fire to a packed out social club in order to get to his ex-girlfriend, as at the time of setting the fire their focus is on the one victim with no regard for anyone else, also much like Gonzalez was these arsonists will be intoxicated at the time of the crime exacerbating the already intense emotions. Luckily in Gonzalez’s case he was also as disorganised as most revenge arsonists, although these attacks will be premeditated, they will be simple often using a match and gasoline and taking little to no steps to conceal their identity making them easier to detect during an investigation, exactly as Gonzalez was.

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