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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: