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San Juan, Puerto Rico: Dupont Plaza Hotel

Updated:January 6, 1987


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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 broke out.

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,'' he said.

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.''

 
Anatomy of a Disaster: The DuPont Plaza Hotel Fire
 
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