Never again would Tucsonans witness the sickening sight
of people jumping from eighth-floor windows to escape flames,
only to be crushed on the pavement below.
Never again would a small child or an elderly person burn
to death because firefighters didn't have the equipment
to reach them.
Not one more death by fire in a high-rise building.
Tucsonans made a solemn pledge in the days following Dec.
20, 1970: The flames that ripped through the Pioneer International
Hotel would be a lesson learned, a disaster never to be
And while some may find it hard to fathom, especially the
loved ones of the dead, the catastrophe that killed 29 people
ended up saving lives.
Firefighters and planning experts say the changes in building
codes spurred by the single greatest loss of life in Tucson's
history have prevented countless deaths over the years here
and around the nation. Following the deliberately set fire,
every Tucson building over 50 feet high -about four stories
- was required to have sprinklers and smoke detectors.And
open stairwells, which firefighters say acted like a chimney
for thePioneer flames - were outlawed in new buildings."The
cost of retrofitting existing buildings with sprinklers
was enormous," said Capt. Joe Gulotta of the Tucson
Fire Department. "But as we saw with the Pioneer Hotel
fire, the cost of not having them was even greater."Downtown
then was the hub for shopping and business activities in
Tucson. People from all over Arizona and northern Mexico
stayed at the Pioneer, atNorth Stone Avenue and Pennington
Street, hoping to get a head start on gift gathering. Many
of them were asleep, recovering from a long day of shopping
at nearby department stores, when the fire broke out shortly
after midnight Dec.20. In the hotel ballroom, 350 Hughes
Aircraft Co. workers were celebrating
at the company's annual party. Then, at 12:19 a.m., emergency
dispatchers took three calls: Fire at the Pioneer!
Veteran firefighters at first thought it was another of
the many false alarms called in on the hotel. But when they
saw the bright orange glow in the sky, they realized it
was the real thing. As some hotel guests and employees tried
to extinguish the fire, set in two places on the fourth
floor, others began to panic. Guests trapped in their rooms
began making ropes from sheets and hanging
them out the windows as fire ripped through the building,
fueled by flammable carpeting and wallpaper and the hotel's
Christmas decorations. As smoke began to seep into rooms
and flames licked at doors, some guests made a fatal decision.
They threw mattresses out the windows, then jumped, hoping
to use the bedding as landing pads. Many hit the pavement
Others began climbing down their hastily made ropes. Some
never knew they were about to die. Several people sleeping
in rooms on the upper floors died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Hotel owner Harold Steinfeld and his wife, Margaret,
who lived in the 11th-floor penthouse, were found dead of
smoke inhalation. Some of those who tried to escape through
windows survived. Emil Bossard, 79, climbed outside his
11th-floor room and clung to the windowsill, trying to draw
firefighters' attention. "He was hanging out the window,
I mean, literally hanging out the window," his grandson,
Bruce Bossard, said in a telephone interview from his home
"He was a pretty rugged individual, and I heard he
had intestinal fortitude and he just hung on." As the
sun rose Dec. 20, police and fire investigators began looking
for the fire's cause.
Investigators determined the blaze was deliberately set,
and police soon arrested 16-year-old Louis Cuen Taylor,
accusing him of starting the fire as a diversion so he
could steal from rooms and the Hughes party.
Taylor was convicted of 28 counts of first-degree murder
in 1972 and sentenced to life in prison, where he remains
today at a complex in Buckeye. The 29th victim died of
her injuries from the fire nine months later, but Taylor
was not charged in that death.
Taylor has always maintained his innocence. Newspaper
accounts from the time described the Pioneer fire as a
"holocaust." "It made a tremendous change
in the Fire Department as well as the community,"
said Tucson Fire Chief Fred Shipman. "It had an effect
on communities all over the U.S." At the Fire Department's
urging, the city adopted a uniform fire code in 1975,
establishing the sprinkler and smoke detector requirements
among other things.
Fire officials say every high-rise in Tucson now complies
with the code, which includes requirements for non-flammable
carpeting, as well as sprinklers and smoke detectors.
They say the code's provision for closed stairwells pays
tribute to the Pioneer fire.
"There was an opening essentially from the bottom
to the top. It was just like a chimney, a fireplace,"
Pioneer fire investigator Bill Martin said.
Immediately following the fire, the Tucson Fire Department
was given permission to purchase the biggest ladder truck
made at the time - 150 feet. The 100-foot ladders used
in the Pioneer fire reached only to the eighth floor.
The Pioneer fire "depicted the need for an apparatus
that could reach to the tallest floor of the buildings
in the city. There were too many people wanting to be
brought down, and we weren't able to reach that high,"
said Marshal Jim Grasham of the Northwest Fire District.
Grasham, who fought the Pioneer fire as a member of the
Tucson Fire Department, recalls the sudden burst of activity
led by city officials to reform the outdated fire codes.
"What occurred was the realization that we need to
engineer a system into these buildings so we don't have
this kind of catastrophe again. The Pioneer
was a springboard for the city," Grasham said. "Unfortunately,
it takes a catastrophic event to get the code developers
the politicians to recognize the need to build something
as safely as you can build it." Black smoke scarred
the sides of the Pioneer long after the fire was out,
a symbol of the emotional scars left on the city's residents.
The ruined building also was a literal and figurative
sign of the demise ofdowntown. The Pioneer had been the
center of Tucson's social life, the place to see and be
seen. The city's largest Kiwanis and Rotary clubs met
there, and it was the hotel
of choice of visiting dignitaries and business people.
Everybody who was anybody in Tucson had lunch in the hotel's
Tap Room at one time or another. Out-of-town shoppers
flocked to the Pioneer because it was right across the
street from Jacome's and Steinfeld's, Tucson's leading
department stores. Suddenly, it was gone.
In those days, downtown "was very vibrant. And the
reason it was vibrant was there were no shopping malls,"
said former City Manager Joel Valdez, who recalls that
cowboys as well as business types added to the hotel's
Although the hotel fire itself did not kill downtown,
Valdez and other city leaders agree it sped the process.
"I don't think downtown Tucson was ever the same
after the fire," said former Mayor Lew Murphy. "It
took the community a long time to get over it."