In San Juan, Puerto Rico, the Dupont Plaza Hotel, once
located in Condado where the Marriott currently stands,
experienced a devastating fire on December 31, 1986. The
fire, set by three employees, originated on corrugated cardboard
cartons of furniture, containing mainly dressers composed
of particleboard and wood, located in the south ballroom.
The fire rapidly broke out of this space and swept through
the lobby and casino areas. As a result of this fire, 97
people died in less than 12 minutes.
It is believed that the occupants
of the lobby and the casino first became aware of
the serious threat to their lives with the crash involved
in the breakage of the windows located between the
south ballroom and the foyer. This window breakage
occurred at the time of flashover, allowing a flow
of dense smoke into the lobby. HOTEL FIRE
TRACED TO BALLROOM AREA
Investigators have determined that the New Year's
Eve fire in the Dupont Plaza Hotel started after an
arsonist ignited furniture stored in plastic wrapping
''in the ballroom area,'' a high-ranking Federal investigator
said today.Investigators have determined that the
New Year's Eve fire in the Dupont Plaza Hotel started
after an arsonist ignited furniture stored in plastic
wrapping ''in the ballroom area,'' a high-ranking
Federal investigator said today.
One theory that investigators are considering seriously,
the Federal official said, is that the arsonist may
have intended to cause property damage but did not
mean to destroy the hotel or kill guests and employees.
The burning of both the plastic wrapping and the furniture
itself, which evidently was made largely of synthetic, petroleum-based
material, ''caused intense heat and a great deal of poisonous
smoke,'' said the official, who insisted on being anonymous.
Investigators are still pursuing the theory that the arsonist
used an incendiary ''chemical substance.'' It was ''very
simple,'' the official said, adding, ''You don't need a
big bomb to cause a big fire.''
Investigators say they have not determined
why the fire was set. Speculation has centered on
a labor-management dispute at the hotel. Less than
10 minutes before the fire that was to take a total
of 96 lives broke out, a meeting in the ballroom of
Local 901 of the INternational Brotherhood of Teamsters,
which represents about half the hotel's employees,
ended with a decision to turn down the last management
offer and strike at midnight.
In a 10-day period before the fire on the afternoon
of New Year's Eve, three small fires were set in various
parts of the hotel, and executives received threatening
letters, according to hotel and police spokesmen.
Guests have charged since the fire that hotel managers
have denied that there was any reason for concern.
''We heard there had been fires in the past couple
of days,'' said James Shannon, a 32-year-old owner
of an advertising and public relations firm from Glastonbury,
Conn. He said that at about noon on Dec. 31, three
and a half hours before the major fire began, he spoke
with a manager who told him: ''Sir, there's no truth
to that. There were no fires.'' Mr. Shannon said he
planned to change hotels the following day.
Less than two hours before the fire, the police were
warned that a bomb had been planted at the hotel.
Officers went to the hotel but were told by staff
members that the threat was unfounded, a police report
noted. At Hotel, Silence on Fire
Spokesman and lawyers for the hotel declined today to answer
any questions. In statements they have given, they have
refused to say what flammable materials may have been in
any of the areas touched by the fire. They have also been
unwilling to say what procedures were to be followed in
case of fire or other emergency.
Several guests have reported that one or more doors to
the casino, the room in which the greatest number of people
believed to have died, were shut and locked after smoke
was detected. One theory is that only one door was to be
left open in such cases to allow security guards to monitor
those leaving the casino.
Bruce Shulman, a director and vice president of the Dupont
Plaza, said Sunday that he did not know whether that was
standard operating procedure. He also declined to estimate
how much money would have been in the casino when the fire
As many as 200 investigators from Puerto Rico's Department
of Justice Bureau of Special Investigations, the Federal
Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Bureau of Alcohol,
Tobacco and Firearms and the Puerto Rico Police Criminal
Affairs Bureau are now working on the case, questioning
a growing circle of people.
However, no arrests are imminent, according to Diader Rosario,
the F.B.I. spokesman here. ''At this point,'' he said, ''we're
just inching forward.'' Long Job Lies Ahead
Mr. Rosario estimated that more than a thousand people
might have to be questioned before the investigation was
completed and that many thousands of pages of reports were
being organized by computer. ''We're interviewing survivors,
witnesses, employees, anybody who was in or around the hotel
or who might know something about what went on there,''
Chemists and arson specialists from the Bureau of Alcohol,
Tobacco and Firearms are also continuing to sift the debris.
Pieces of material or residue that might be used in evidence
are being sent by air to the bureau's National Forensic
Laboratory in Rockville, Md.
Robert J. Cummings, a New Orleans-based lawyer who served
as chairman of the plantiffs' committee following the M-G-M
Grand Hotel fire in Las Vegas, in which 84 people died,
noted in a telephone interview today that that hotel and
''many plush hotels use furnishings that are highly flammable
and produce toxic gases when they burn.''
''For example,'' he continued, ''there is a fake leather
commonly used that is made of polyvinyl chloride.''
Burning polyvinil chloride, he said, produces hydrochloric
acid, which ''scorches the lungs, the nostrils, the eyes,
any damp area and can cause death immediately.'' Investigators
here said that most of the victims of the fire were killed
quickly in a manner consistent with either the inhalation
of poisonous gases or ''superheated'' air. ---- Staten Islander
Amond Dead A Staten Island man, Diego (Dickie) Palemine,
died in the San Juan fire, his family said Monday.
''The nightmare's over,'' Joey Palemine, the victim's brother,
said yesterday. ''We waited five days, and it was like going
to hell, and now he's finally coming home. The whole family
is very upset. Yesterday they told us they found the body,
and it was identified, and two hours later, they said it
wasn't him. Then today, they said it was finally him.''
Joey's wife, Marie, said Diego had owned and operated Lee's
Tavern, a neighborhood bar in Dongan Hills, for 18 years.
With Mr. Palemine in Puerto Rico were his wife, Catherine,
and their children, Diego, 8, Michele, 14, and Eleanor,
18, as well as a cousin, Leonora Carey. None were injured
in the fire.
A fourth daughter, the eldest child, Cathy, 20, forfeited
the family's annual trip to stay home and help run the tavern.
''He took the whole family to Puerto Rico every year at
this time,'' said Marie Palemine. ''The kids were off from
school, so it was convenient. He used to come home the day
before his birthday - January 3. Last Saturday would have
been his 43d birthday.''