NEW YORK (AP) – Twenty-five years ago, what was then the biggest mass murder in U.S. history turned a New York City dance club into a smoky, flame-filled inferno that left dozens of people dead, some with drinks still clutched in their hands.
That night, a Cuban refugee named Julio Gonzalez tried to win back the woman who had spurned him.
Gonzalez entered the Happy Land social club in the Bronx, which was humming with mostly immigrants partying and dancing. His former live-in girlfriend, Lydia Feliciano, was checking coats and they had a violent argument. Gonzalez was thrown out.
In a rage, he returned just after 3 a.m., splashing gasoline on Happy Land’s only exit and lighting two matches. Then he pulled down the metal front gate.
Within minutes, 87 people were dead.
That tragedy in March 1990 will be commemorated on Wednesday evening when a Roman Catholic Mass is held, followed by a procession from the church to a granite memorial near the club, where a candlelight vigil will take place.
The fire was the worst in New York City since 146 women died in a blaze at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in what is today’s Greenwich Village. They were killed exactly 79 years earlier on March 25, 1911.
That spring night in 1990, people were smothered by black smoke or fatally burned. It happened so quickly that some appeared like frozen figures from Pompeii.
A few still had drinks in their hands. Some had torn off their party clothes, engulfed by flames. Others died hugging or holding hands. Bodies were piled up on Happy Land’s dance floor in the darkness, their faces covered with soot.
“I woke up and smelled smoke,” said Jeff Warley, who lived three blocks away. He walked to the site of the blaze, “and there were still bodies there, on the street” – wrapped in white and awaiting transport.
Feliciano survived, as did only a handful of others. Among them was the DJ, Ruben Valladares, who plunged into flames, staggering out with burns over 50 percent of his body.
Those who were trapped included Pablo Blanco’s uncle, Mario Martinez, who left behind a wife and baby.
“He was my favorite uncle, he used to show me how to cook, he used to take me to different family events,” said Blanco, standing this week at the edge of Southern Boulevard in the West Farms neighborhood near the onetime club, now a hair salon.
Even 25 years is not enough to erase the memories of horror vivid in the minds of survivors and those who never again saw their loved ones. One woman lost a half dozen family members, Blanco said.
“My friend Frank can’t even come here, the memories just come up to him – of friends and family he’s lost,” he said.