ATF Arson Squad’s Finest Hour: Dupont Plaza, San Juan

Some people forget there’s more to the ATF than the humorless Men In Black peeling the Molon Labe stickers off their SHOT Show display, but they are justifiably proud of their investigatory prowess on arsons. This is what they themselves consider their finest hour in arson investigation.

On New Year’s Eve, 1986, the casino at the Dupont Plaza in San Juan, Puerto Rico was going to close early — at 6 PM — and the workers were going to get a holiday night off. Most of the workers were pleased, but a handful of them were not — embittered by a long and unsuccessful organizing campaign, union activists with Teamsters Local 901 decided to teach the company a lesson on the last day of the year. Mess with the Teamsters? You’re going to pay. The owners and managers had heard those threats before — in fact, Teamsters had set three small fires prior to their masterpiece — and shrugged them off.

This is the first of a three-part story on the fire itself, from Rescue 911, with narration by William Shatner. (The other two parts should autoplay after the first ends).

The ATF describes the fire like this:

At 3:30 p.m. a fire broke out. Employees attempted to suppress it to no avail. The manual fire evacuation alarm installed in the high-rise tower malfunctioned. As verbal warnings about the fire echoed through the lower levels of the hotel, smoke began spreading into the casino. Even this did not provoke a full evacuation; only a few individuals began moving to the exits.

Flashover occurred in the south ballroom and fire violently vented into a stairway/foyer area, spewing deadly products of combustion toward the lobby and casino.

Forty-five Seconds

Within eight to 13 minutes after the discovery of the fire, heavy black smoke billowed through the main lobby, past the casino and out the spiral stairway exit. Smoke heated to 600 degrees Fahrenheit filled the two-story high foyer, shattering its exterior glass panels. Almost simultaneously, the hot gases and flames exploded the glass wall between the foyer and the casino. Within 45 seconds, a front of black smoke followed by flames swept through the lobby and the entire length of the casino, killing dozens. The inferno engulfed the high-rise tower, trapping hundreds of occupants. Rescue workers rushed to the top floors, herding the panicky occupants upwards and onto the roof where helicopters lifted them to safety.

The death toll was more from toxic smoke than from direct thermal injuries. As one firefighter explains in the videos above, “The smoke was so toxic that people could die… from two or three respirations.”

From 94 to 98 people died — the period stories disagree, possibly because some bodies took time to recover, and some of the injured didn’t pull through. Approximately 150 were injured.

It was helicopter rescues that kept the death toll from being twice or three times as high. The rescues were hairy, because of the narrow ledge; a small Hughes 500 (military guys, think Little Bird) could make it, a Bell 206 hung over the edge, and larger, more capable military helicopters like a PR Army National Guard UH-1H and Coast Guard Sea Kings and Eurocopters had to hover with one skid or one wheel on and one in the air, inches from disaster.

Not all the fatalities were tourists.

One of the fatalities was a U.S. Secret Service special agent working on a counterfeiting investigation; his charred body was found in the currency counting room adjacent to the casino. Most of the fatalities and injuries occurred in the casino when the visitors were blanketed by the racing smoke and flame front. Miraculously, only one person in the high-rise tower died. The damage to the building was estimated to be $6 million.

But ATF investigators, who flew in an arson-lab-in-a-truck on an Air Force C5, quickly learned that it wasn’t just any fire: it had been set by cans of Sterno set in stored furniture.

Because of the multiple explosions, witnesses thought the conflagration was a bombing incident. But based on the physical evidence found at the scene and from more than 400 witness statements and interviews, ATF determined that the fire was an intentional act of arson; that the area of origin was in a stack of furniture in the south ballroom; and that the fire was initiated by one or more cans of Sterno-type cooking fuel placed or thrown at the points of origin.

Victims inside the destroyed lobby.

The union activists who started the fire were quickly rounded up. Several pled guilty (they had meant to punish the company for not recognizing their union, and frighten tourists, not murder people. Their attorneys said that they were aghast at the consequences of their own actions). One committed suicide by jumping from a tall building. Despite the claimed remorse, though, all maintained a strict code of omerta with respect to the planning of the massacre and the foreknowledge of Teamster Local 901 and national leaders.

The New York Times, which had a pro-union editorial policy at the time, excised any mention of the labor dispute from their reports, and were still in denial about the cause of the disaster 10 days later. The union countercharged that the deaths were the hotel’s fault for not having more emergency exits.

The Teamster leaders who ordered the fire were too well-connected politically with the PR territorial government; they were never investigated or charged, nor were the Teamsters who created the diversion for the Teamster firebugs. But there would have been no convictions at all, if not for the efforts of the ATF Regional and National Response arson teams.

Workers show the strain of clearing the gutted property.

The rank-and-file murderers were sentenced to 99 years in prison — el máximo according to Puerto Rican law — but most if not all of them have received clemency from Teamsters-connected politicians.

Renovations to the building took ten years, and it reopened in 1995 as a Marriott property.

Update

The National Institute of Standards and Technology has published a technical paper on the early spread of the fire. You may download it at this link:

https://www.nist.gov/node/600621?pub_id=908808

20 thoughts on “ATF Arson Squad’s Finest Hour: Dupont Plaza, San Juan

  1. SPEMack

    Holy shit. I remember that episode of Rescue 911 vaguely from my childhood. Those were some, to quote SMSgt SPEMack Sr, some real good sticks driving the rescue helicopters.

    Not to attempt to supplant John M, but did you mean Eurocopter Dolphins? I ask because that’s what appears to be in the photograph.

    1. John M.

      I just handle typos and incomplete sentences, homie. I’ll have to leave chopper identification to the people who know what they’re talking about. I come here to learn about stuff like this. And to spout off in the comments section. :)

      -John M.

    2. Hognose Post author

      There’s lots of photos and videos showing different copters, and the Coast Guard had both the Dolphin and a big Sikorsky. The Dolphin (whatever USCG calls it, HH-65?) is the one I couldn’t remember the name of, just that it was a Eurocopter. Every one of those copter drivers had yarbles of inconel that day, but especially the guys driving the big, heavy stuff.

      If you watch the video, two big heroes were a local cop who got himself dropped on the roof to organize the rescue, and a fitness instructor tourist who put his wife on the copter, then stayed himself to pull people up on to the roof. They were among the last, if not the last, guys down. Everyone who went up to the roof was saved.

  2. staghounds

    The Columbia jail fire taught me, If there’s smoke, get out now. One bad breath can kill you.

    Those are some heroic rescues there. I remember seeing this on the news too.

  3. John Distai

    Speaking of the sticks flying that day – As a desk jockey, boredom and focus is a real problem. (I’m projecting here) – Imagine the alertness and absolute laser focus those chopper pilots had doing those rescue sorties. I imagine that this mental state is an incredibly desirable, but unique “high” that few experience. Like the sudden recognition that you are fully in the moment, one with the machine, and performing at the pinnacle of your craft. It’s an interesting and intoxicating thought, at least to me.

  4. Bill T

    I’ve seen both 1st hand and 2nd hand some pretty awesome performances from American helo pilots both military and civilian. Takes lots of brass cajonies, nerve, cold concentration to pull off some of these feats.

  5. Brad

    Holy Crap! I knew of the Happy Land fire murders, but not of this.

    Why is this incident not more common knowledge? Probably because the perps were convicted of only arson? They even killed a Fed, yet there were no Federal murder charges? WTF?

  6. Keith

    I can remember watching a show about dangerous occupations several years ago. The one that sticks out was the crews that check high tower power lines. Those are carrying 250K volts. They did it with IIRC then a Bell Jet Ranger. A guy in a Faraday suit leans out and grounds out the copter and crew. You could visibly, in daylight, see the spark as he did so. Then the pilot has to hold his bird as still as if it were setting on the ground not running regardless of how long it takes the line worker to do his job.

    1. Ken D

      Most liveline bare hand helicopter work we do in my area of the country is with MD500 series helicopters, specifically the 530F. Greater power/weight ratio makes it easier to accomplish that precise hover. Bigger payload than the earlier 500’s is nice too.

  7. Dwight Brown

    Brad:

    “Holy Crap! I knew of the Happy Land fire murders, but not of this.”

    This. I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but: 94 people murdered. The weapon of choice? Cans of Sterno and an ignition source.

    But we need to ban “assault weapons”.

    (See also.)

  8. Ti

    Good story and valuable lesson. Smell smoke in high rise, better not ignore. A fire apparatus can only reach so high. More worried about the products of combustion, than being burned. A fire goes through several stages before flash overs take place. Getting out ASAP is most important.
    I believe a rescue such as this could have been mounted had people woke up and went to the roof of the world trade center. You don’t have a lot of time between match to sterno to full blown involevement. Jet fuel to several floors below you does not mean your gonna die if you fight your way to the roof before the combustion gas takes you out. Because of the PR fire, I actually expected helos to start landing on the roof of the Twins on 9/11. Boy was I wrong.
    If I ever work in a high rise building, meaning that is where my desk is, I will be carrying a emergency escape self contained breathing apparatus, stashed in my locker or closet, that ONLY I WILL KNOW ABOUT.
    When the alarm sounds, I get up get my bag, and leave. When I am on the ground or safely upwind, then I will decide if I’m going to listen to what the rent a cop or building security has to say.

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