How New York Changed After the Worst Tragedy Too Few Remember


Before the fire was out and the smoke had lifted, Ruben Valladares was already in the emergency room with second- and third-degree burns covering half his body. The ambulance call report, handwritten at 3:47 a.m. and updated several times over the next hour, detailed the location of his injuries: “Upper and Lower,” “Entire Face, Back and Buttocks,” “Resp Burns to Nose.” Nurses would note in his chart that Mr. Valladares wasn’t opening his eyes spontaneously.

He was alive, though, one of only six survivors. The fire at the Happy Land Social Club on March 25, 1990, resulted in the largest loss of life in New York City since the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire: 87 people at the club died that day. The club had been operating illegally. It had no sprinklers and several exits were blocked off with roll-down security shutters.

The fire was set deliberately by Julio Gonzalez, who had gotten into an argument with his girlfriend of more than eight years, Lydia Feliciano. She worked at the club as a ticket taker and coat checker. A bouncer kicked him out.

Mr. Gonzalez returned with a dollar’s worth of gasoline bought at a nearby Amoco station, poured it across the club’s only entrance, and ignited it. Police found Mr. Gonzalez in his gasoline-reeking apartment, and he soon confessed. Mr. Gonzalez was convicted and later died, in 2016, at a hospital in upstate New York where he had been taken from prison after an apparent heart attack.

“I set fire with two matches together,” he told the police. “I lit them and threw them from the sidewalk.” A generation later, much of the landscape that shaped the tragedy and its aftermath has changed. The New York City Department of Buildings immediately stepped up investigations of illegal clubs, and just last year, it put mandatory regulations in place for escape-room businesses to guard participants from being trapped during a fire.

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states can bar so-called insanity defenses, limiting the rights of criminal defendants like Mr. Gonzalez.

And New York City firefighters now have access to robust peer-counseling services, a development that started just before the fire in the Bronx and which would be fully operational before September 2001, when it was needed the most.

The following conversations were conducted between Jan. 24 and March 18, 2020. The responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Ruben Valladares was the D.J. the night of the fire. He was spinning an assortment of merengue, salsa, reggae, and calypso records.

Today he lives near Orlando, Fla., and spends much of the year at sea working for an offshore oil and gas supply company. But he vividly recalls the moment the fire erupted. He’d been working at Happy Land every Friday, Saturday and Sunday for a year or two, his nights beginning at 9 and not ending until the last customer left at 6 or 7 the next morning.

Ruben Valladares I still remember everything, like it’s the same day.

I heard a lot of people screaming. When I run to the door, I call everybody: I say, “If someone’s going to leave, follow me.” When I left, I was on flame. All over my body.

Mr. Valladares was in the hospital for nearly seven months, where he had several skin grafts. He also underwent months of physical and occupational therapy. His recurring nightmares were treated with medication. He still can’t close his left hand completely. He says people continue to stare at the scars on his neck.

R.V. When I see my face, sometimes I say, Nah, that’s not me.

Cindy Valentin’s fiancé, Juan Jose Nuñez, went to Happy Land that evening to celebrate his cousin’s birthday. Ms. Valentin was supposed go, but she couldn’t find a babysitter for their three daughters. The cousin having the birthday, Marisol Martinez, also died that night. Ms. Valentin and Mr. Nuñez were both 22 and high-school sweethearts. They planned to get married that April.

Cindy Valentin I always said that because of him I am the woman that I am today. He made me a first mom, he showed me how to explore the outside world, because growing up my parents were so strict and I couldn’t go out. I couldn’t have friends. I didn’t know what was the movie theater, nothing like that. He showed me all of that.

I have three kids — the only three kids he had. I look at them, it’s like I see him. I have pictures. There’s certain songs that remind me of him, certain gestures my daughters do that remind me of him. It’s like, for me, he’s still here with me.

I keep a close bond with my daughters. They taught me to be more appreciative for what I have.

The morning of the fire, Ms. Valentin went to Happy Land to find Mr. Nuñez. She recalls seeing his body covered by a sheet, but she recognized his build and a white Adidas sneaker on one foot. The other shoe was missing.

C.V. I was shaking. I couldn’t accept the fact that it was actually him, even though they didn’t let nobody go directly to the body. But I knew.

Jerry Murtha was a lieutenant with Rescue Company 3 of the New York Fire Department, on West 181st Street in Manhattan. He jumped on the truck when the company received word, via teleprinter, of a working fire on Southern Boulevard in the Bronx. He joined the Fire Department in 1977, and he retired in 2002.

Jerry Murtha I guess other than 9/11, Happy Land was the worst thing to ever happen to me as a firefighter. We’ve seen numerous deaths, but Happy Land took its toll because you saw so many young, innocent people that were killed senselessly.

Rescue 3 responds to all active building fires in the borough of the Bronx and Upper Manhattan. So we were all amped up for a fire, but we never expected that that many people would be trapped inside.

Mr. Murtha recalls that when he arrived, bystanders were already filling the street, hysterical and screaming that there were many people still on the top floor of the building. He says he was the first one to get there.

J.M. I crawled up the stairs and when I got up there, it was just one after the other of people stacked up on the top floor. I knew they were people and I was just trying to get off them, and the further I crawled, I was just crawling on more and more people.

Mr. Murtha says he relayed the information to the chief that he had 10-45’s — code for casualties — on the second floor. Everyone seemed to be dead.

J.M. He asked me ‘How Many?’ And he was expecting for me to say, maybe, two, three or five, and I just said, “Numerous, numerous.”

Mr. Murtha says the victims suffocated. The stairwell to the second floor from the first floor, where the fire was set, acted like a chimney. He says all the heat and gasses shot right up the stairs, the carbon monoxide so strong nobody could breathe.

J.M. They were young people. You can see they were all huddled together, they were trapped. It was just sad. They were holding each other.

By 1990, Mr. Murtha had already been on the job for 13 years. He says he’d seen plenty of victims, his share of dead bodies, and generally he was able to take it in as just being a normal part of the job. The scale of loss at Happy Land was different.

J.M. There was no way you were going to walk away from that and never remember that night and what happened.

Mr. Murtha recalls a counseling unit calling the firehouse after the fire, but he didn’t talk to anyone, and he doesn’t recall any other firefighters getting counseling.

J.M. Back then they didn’t really do much. They did offer counseling if you thought you needed it, but you know what, I just wanted to go home and hug my wife and kids.

After the attacks on the World Trade Center, though, firefighters overcame their reluctance.

Believe me, if anybody needed counseling, nobody was going to look down on them. It’s gotten so much better now. The whole United States has gotten so much better with that. I look at soldiers during W.W. II, these guys came back to no counseling and that was like, vicious, vicious war. And they were expected to just go back to society like nothing ever happened. And, I’m like, Oh, my God, those poor guys.

Rick Berne represented Julio Gonzalez, who was convicted of 174 counts of murder in the second degree and other crimes. He was the lead defense attorney, and though it was a high-profile case scrutinized by the tabloids, he said he never felt any danger in defending Mr. Gonzalez.

I made it an absolute point to be completely respectful. I never said anything publicly or in the courtroom that anyone would have interpreted as being negative toward the victims. There’s no reason for me to give these people pain any more than they’re already suffering. Why on earth would I do that?

Every day of the trial, I would be riding up and down the elevators, and frequently the elevator I would get in would be filled with family members. And no one said a single negative word to me. I never was threatened. No one was ever unpleasant to me. Nothing.

At the time of the trial, of course, there was no social media. Mr. Berne pointed out that if the trial were held today, internet trolls would have added to the families’ suffering, perhaps faulting the men and women for going to a club that had been operating illegally. Maybe he would have been targeted for representing Mr. Gonzalez.

Rick Berne I just think that it would be a nightmare now. It wouldn’t have changed my decision, because I took an oath. I mean, I represented a lot of people where what they were charged with — I defended murders. I defended rapes. I defended really a lot of horrible stuff. But that’s what the Constitution says. The Sixth Amendment gives you a right to counsel, and I take that extremely seriously.

I’ve had people back then and sometimes even now ask me, how could you do this? And my answer is, read the Constitution. Everybody hates lawyers until they need one.

Eric Warner was the lead prosecutor. He looks back on his opening statement as a lost opportunity. He says he labored how to read the names of the victims out loud to the jury. He ended up reading the names alphabetically, and it’s something he wished he hadn’t done.

Eric Warner If I had been random, it would have seemed even more endless. Really, that’s the point. There were so many names. There were so many people who died that you literally lost count.

On a technical level, Mr. Warner’s goal was to use Mr. Gonzalez’s videotaped confession to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and discredit Mr. Berne’s insanity defense.

E.W. The way I was trying to approach it, to minimize that, to try to explain that depraved indifference to human life is not anything related to insanity. It’s related to the gravity of the crime. It was so obvious to anybody looking at the circumstances that this person set a fire in a social club. He might as well have intended to kill them because death was almost a certainty.

Thirty years ago, New York Fire Department Commissioner Daniel Nigro was a battalion chief. Peer counseling was just getting started under the department’s then head of counseling, Malachy Corrigan. The aftermath of the Happy Land fire was essentially the inaugural event of the program, Commissioner Nigro says, and the unit has been part of the Fire Department ever since.

Daniel Nigro We had a counseling unit — professional, very small — and we trained some members of the department to be able, if necessary, to counsel other members of the department when they had a situation that required it. So this really was the first time that this particular unit was put to use, that morning.

A lot of members — especially at that time — were not comfortable speaking to a shrink, so to speak. But they would be comfortable speaking to someone who had experience as a firefighter.

Since that day, Commissioner Nigro says, a generation of firefighters has had readily available counseling, where before, members of the department felt forced to internalize their feelings of loss of grief.

D.N. I think it was a relatively slow evolution until 9/11. And I think that certainly sped up the evolution. I would hope to say that most of our members are open to some form of counseling now when they need it, when prior to that, people were very afraid that they would be looked upon as being weak, that this is our job and if you can’t take it you shouldn’t be in this job.

I don’t think any of us believe that today.

If there are lessons from Happy Land, Commissioner Nigro insists it’s not about how to more effectively battle fires.

D.N. I don’t think the firefighting aspect at Happy Land was the issue. The issue was this club was running, we didn’t know about it, it wasn’t inspected, it wasn’t properly — nothing was proper about it.

Now there’s a citywide task force that ensures that Happy Lands are not all over our city, endangering people who may want to go out and have a good time and end up never coming home.

Three decades later, the annual vigil commemorating the Happy Land tragedy has gotten smaller and more subdued. And today, for the first time, the event has been canceled, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Jeannette Bocanegra-Simon has lived in the Bronx her entire life. As director of Family Partnerships for Justice for Families, she is a community activist and feels she and others bear a responsibility to remember.

Jeannette Bocanegra-Simon They say out of sight, out of mind, but it’s not out of sight. It’s very visible to the community. Even though my daughter was just born, was just 1 year old in 1990, she remembers because I always talk about it. Every time we walk by there, I talk about it.

The trauma is real. I think the Latino and African-American community has dealt with trauma in a different way without getting the support that they need. We say counseling is good, but I didn’t grow up thinking that speaking to a therapist was OK. It was like something wrong with you. I think we’re now embracing much of what we thought was taboo.

It’s just like what’s happening now with the coronavirus. If we don’t take care of each other, who will?



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