19 Octobre 2016  |  Incendie
Publié dans Hotel Security Worldwide 02/1987

Hotel Fire in Puerto Rico

The following report was written by the Correspondent of the German firemen’s magazine «112» in collaboration with Harvey Eisner of the American tire prevention magazine «Fire House ». Mr. Eisner visited the site of the tire only a few days after it occurred and registered the eyewitness accounts of the firemen.

The Dupont Plaza Hotel fire (San Juan, Puerto Rico), on December 31, 1986, was the most serious hotel tire disaster America had seen since 1946. The toll amounted to 96 killed and 140 injured. Many hotel guests were cut off on the upper floors of the hotel. Rescue operations were carried out in part by helicopters. The forces involved included firemen, police, the coast-guard and volunteers. Of the persons killed, the greatest number were found piled in the hotel casino. They had died while trying to escape through a casino door opening to the inside. The building lacked an automatic smoke and tire detection system and its sprinkler system left very much to be desired.
A thorough investigation by various authorities established arson as the cause of the fire. Confessions were obtained from three individuals.
As a first consequence of the tire, the authorities of Puerto Rico allocated funds to hire 300 additional firemen and 37 safety employees for tire prevention. In addition, a tire commission consisting of ten specialists was set up. The Commission studied tire safety in ail its aspects, and submitted recommendations for improvement to the Governor of Puerto Rico.

Description of the Hotel
The Dupont Plaza Hotel located directly overlooking Condado Beach, was built in 1963 by the Sheraton Hotel Company. That same year, the first tire safety building regulations were introduced into Puerto Rico.
The hotel complex consisted of a twenty-storey building with 423 guest rooms (each with a balcony), a casino and restaurant covering two floors, in addition to several small shops, a dance hall and a discotheque. It had more than 400 employees.
All sections were interconnected on the ground floor through a large entrance hallway. The high-rise hotel tower, the casino and the main entrance to the hotel were built to comply with the tire safety regulations of the US National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA). The large dance hall was built of fireproof and unfireproofed flammable materials. The casino was located on the second, that is, the main floor of the hotel under the high-rise section and behind a reception hall. This is where most of the casino guests were located when the tire broke out. They were unable to escape due to the general panic end the rapid spread of the blaze.
The casino had two exits leading to the reception hall, where the elevators were located. One of these exits had a swinging glass door and the other a wooden door opening to the inside.
Only a small end insignificant part of the hotel (aside from the kitchen, a laundry room on the ninth floor and a control room next to the dance hall) was equipped with a built-in tire extinguishing system. There was only one Ioudspeaker system which could have been used to warn and evacuate the guests. Fire regulations in Puerto Rico did not make sprinklers compulsory. When the tire broke out, the hotel was fully booked with approximately 1000 guests, roughly half of whom were in the building. In retrospect, it is difficult to say how many non-hotel guests were in the casino at that time. The figure has been advanced of at least 175 guests, employees and onlookers.

Problems with the Labour Union
Many hotel employees were members of a labor union, which had been preparing for a showdown with the hotel company. On the afternoon of December 31, the hotel management had placed a conference room at the disposal of members of this union for their meeting. Later on, hotel guests said that rumours were going the rounds that a demonstration would be held in the neighbourhood of Condado Beach. In the days immediately preceding, several hotel employees received threatening letters. Just before the meeting was scheduled to be held the police received a report from an anonymous caller that a bomb had been placed in the hotel. Two policemen were dispatched to the hotel, and upon arrival, they were informed by the employees that the hotel management was not interested in having a search made of the premises and that «everything was in order».
Apparently, three smaller fires had been set in the hotel during the period 20-31 December. In each case, mattresses or bed sheets had been set on tire in equipment end supply rooms.
The hotel management had taken en 28 additional employees for the security service.

The Fire Breake Out
Only a few minutes following the close of the Labour Union meeting, a tire was set against the south wall of the dance hall, at a place where the cartons and wooden boxes that had been used to pack new furniture delivered on the preceding day had been piled. For his purpose, the arsonist had used a combustible liquid. The area was separated from the rest of the hall by a hanging, folding partition.
At 3.30 p.m., a guest, who was leaving the casino, noticed the smoke, which was penetrating the reception hall through the foyer. When - only nine minutes after the tire had been set - the windows burst almost at the same rime, it had become impossible for anyone to escape from the casino where a panic broke out, as a result of the heavy smoke and effects of the tire. Only a few guests managed to escape by jumping through the broken windows to the ground, 5 meter below. The tire was fanned by the air flowing in from outside and spread within a few minutes to the entire area of the casino and reception hall. The six elevators in the tower above thereby became unuseable. Several hundred guests in the hotel rooms were surprised by the billowing smoke outside the hotel and in the corridors.
Fire Department Goes into Action
At 3.40 p.m., the tire brigade received a call from the hotel switchboard. Immediately afterwards, vehicles were dispatched to the site. Even while under way, the firemen noticed a large column of smoke coming from the direction of the hotel, which led the brigade chief to call for reinforcements. Upon their arrival at the scene, the firemen saw between ten and fiften injured people were lying in front of the hotel. About 100 more persons were on the balconies. By this rime, the tire had spread throughout the two floors of the fiat structure, including the casino. Ten other badly injured persons who had jumped from the windows of the casino were lying on the left side of the building.
The crew of the first tender, who had no breathing protection apparatus on the vehicle, laid out two hoses in the direction of the reception hall and tried to bring the heat and smoke under control by means of a water spray. The collapsing ceiling panelling and glass splinters made entry into the building difficult. Later on, however, another fireman equipped with a breathing protection device, was able to penetrate, alone, about 25 meters into the building with a hose. Here he found himself confronted with a veritable «tire tunnel ». The entire reception hall was on tire, with the blaze fanned by a strong wind from the direction of the beach.
At around 4 p.m., rive hoses were in operation. Roughly sixty persons were calling for help from the balconies of the guest rooms. One hotel guest jumped from the 7th floor in the direction of the swimming pool but fell 2 meters short on the concrete and was killed instantly.
It was not possible to work with the revolving ladder since it was unable to bridge the 30 meters broad fiat base of the hotel in order to reach the side of the high rise structure. Ten firemen reached the lower balconies by means of sliding ladders. They began to search for people in ail the corridors and rooms.
The guests, some of whom where completely frantic, were invited to leave the rooms and go to the upper floors. There were two stairwells, both of which were filled with smoke. On the way up, the firemen again and again came across completely helpless individuals to whom they were forced to give air from their own breathing protection apparatus. At the east side over the dance hall, flames and smoke had blackened the outside wall up to the 6th floor.

Helicopter Rescue Operations
Within the next half hour, helicopters were dispatched to the hotel. The Coast Guard was placed in charge of co-ordinating ail operations. Although a helicopter rescue plan existed, it had never been put into practice.
Problems now came to the fore which had never occurred to the theoreticians who had set up the plan. On the hotel roof were structures housing the air conditioning and elevator machinery, which took up roughly two thirds of the surface. For this reason, helicopters were only able to land on a corner of the roof, and often on only one runner, because the rotor blades were getting dangerously close to the structures. Despite these handicaps, as well as some other problems due to the wind, the noise and the smoke, this operation offered the only possibility of rescuing 215 guests from the roof of the hotel complex.
Finding the Victims
The reception hall had been completely destroyed, and in it the firemen came across three bodies. Inside the casino, in a corridor, many bodies were lying. An investigation carried out after the tire revealed that 55 persons burned to death in this area.
On the opposite side of the casino, 25 bodies were found in addition to three in the croupier room, which, however, had resisted the flames. Three other victims were found in an elevator between the first and second floors and one guest died of smoke poisoning on the fourth floor.
In addition, 140 injured persons were brought to seven nearby hospitals; eigt of them succombed to their injuries.

Investigating the Causes
The Puerto Rico Police requested the help of the FBI and the American tire investigation authorities (ATF) in carrying out their investigations. At the end of rive days there was enough evidence on hand to permit a complaint to be brought before the US District Court. Three hotel employees were arrested and indicted for conspiracy to commit arson and murder in 96 cases. According to the Federal investigators, the case was not difficult to solve because no traces had been eliminated and the building itself had remained intact.
The investigations also revealed that aven the rapid intervention of 100 firemen couId not have prevented the high number of casualties. The only way to prevent tire disaster of this sort is to have an automatic tire alarm system and a built-in sprinkler system, in other words to introduce preventive measures which are an integral part of the building's tire prevention concept.

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