The Happy Land nightclub fire in 1990 killed 87
The Bronx fire that killed 17 people on Sunday was the deadliest blaze in New York since 1990, when a fire at a Bronx nightclub killed 87 people.
This fire, which was started by an arsonist after he got into a fight with his girlfriend, happened at the Happy Land Social Club, an unlicensed club that lacked sprinklers, fire alarms and emergency exits . It had been ordered to close for fire hazards and building code violations 16 months before the fire, but it continued to operate. The nightclub was on the second floor of a dilapidated building and was crowded with mostly Honduran immigrants celebrating Carnival.
The arsonist, Julio Gonzalez, a Cuban refugee, had argued with his girlfriend on and off about leaving her changing room job at the club, before a bouncer ejected him around 3am. He walked three blocks to a gas station and filled a gallon jug with $1 worth of gas from an attendant there.
At around 3:30 a.m. he returned to the club, doused the bottom of the stairs with gasoline, and set it on fire, cutting the only door open and filling the club with smoke. As the fire grew, he returned home.
It was one of the worst mass murders in US history. Most of the people at the club were choked with smoke and only six people survived, including Mr Gonzalez’s girlfriend. She told the police about her argument with him, and when the police arrived at her apartment, he confessed. “I got angry, the devil grabbed me and I set the fire,” he told detectives.
It was the deadliest fire in New York since the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in 1911, which occurred 79 years to the day before the Happy Land fire. After the Happy Land fire, the city stepped up its investigations into illegal clubs.
Mr. Gonzalez was convicted the following year and received 87 concurrent prison sentences of 25 years to life. After serving 25 years in prison, he died in 2016 at age 61 in an upstate New York hospital, where he had been released from prison after an apparent heart attack.