The Happy Land Nightclub Fire in 1990 Left 87 People Dead


The Bronx fire that killed 19 people on Sunday was the deadliest fire in New York since 1990, when a fire at a Bronx nightclub left 87 dead.

That fire, which was set by an arsonist after he had fought with his girlfriend, occurred at the Happy Land Social Club, an unlicensed club that lacked sprinklers, fire alarms and fire exits. It had been ordered to close for fire hazards and building code infractions 16 months before the fire, but it continued to operate. The nightclub was on the second floor of a run-down building and was crowded with mostly Honduran immigrants celebrating Carnival.

The arsonist, Julio Gonzalez, a Cuban refugee, had gotten into an argument with his on-and-off-again girlfriend about her quitting her job as a coat checker at the club, before a bouncer ejected him at around 3 a.m. He walked three blocks to a gas station and filled a one-gallon container with $1 worth of gasoline from an attendant there.

At about 3:30 a.m., he went back to the club, splashed gasoline at the bottom of the staircase and lit it on fire, cutting off the only open door and filling the club with smoke. As the blaze grew, he went home.

It was one of the worst mass murders in U.S. history. Most of the people at the club suffocated from the smoke, and only six people survived, including Mr. Gonzalez’s girlfriend, Ms. Feliciano. She told the police about her argument with him, and when the police got to his apartment, he confessed. “I got angry, the devil got to me, and I set the fire,” he told detectives.

It was the deadliest fire in New York City 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 of illegal clubs.

Mr. Gonzalez was convicted the next year and received 87 concurrent prison sentences of 25 years to life. After having served 25 years, he died in 2016 at 61 at a hospital in upstate New York, where he had been taken from prison after an apparent heart attack.

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