Teamsters’ Deadly New Year’s Eve Fire

New Year’s Eve 1986, a deadly reminder of why Congress needs to pass the Freedom from Union Violence Act:

On New Year’s Eve, 1986, negotiations between Local 901 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters–led by militant armored-truck-robber-turned-union-lawyer, Jorge Farinacci–and the management of the Hotel DuPont had come to a screeching halt when union members rejected management’s final offer.

Ten minutes later, an inferno was ignited, sparked by the hands of union militants.

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On the last day of the year in 1986, hundreds of American tourists planned to spend their New Year’s Eve at San Juan, Puerto Rico’s DuPont Plaza Hotel. While some people were in the rooms preparing for the evening’s festivities, many of the guests packed themselves into the luxury hotel’s second floor casino.

However labor relations between the hotel’s management and its unionized workers were coming to a head during that period. According to the New York Times:

Minutes before the fire erupted on Dec. 31, a meeting in the hotel ballroom involving employees belonging to Local 901 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters broke up. At that meeting, unionists unanimously rejected a management offer and decided to strike at midnight.

Escuerdo Aponte, a hotel worker and union member, returned to the hotel’s ground floor ballroom after the union meeting recessed. He then torched a pile of stacked packaged furniture in the room.

At 3:40 PM the calls for help began to come into the local San Juan fire stations. The fire had exploded across the hotel’s lower floors and blocked all the exits, including the casino doors. Hundreds of guests and staff inside were trapped. Thick noxious smoke spiraled up the stairways and elevator shafts. Those who managed to escape the flames in the casino below did so by smashing windows with stools and leaping two stories to the pool deck below.

“For a short period of time the casino turned into a mob scene—chaos. People were on fire, screaming. Black Jack table stools were starting to fly through the windows. People were tossing them out the windows to see if they could break them,” said one survivor of the hotel fire years later on the TV program Rescue 911. “A lot of these people were tossing [the stools] out the windows to see if they could break them. Bodies—people started flinging themselves out the window. So that’s when I decided to go out the window…when I looked up everybody was on fire,” he said.

Although other union members staged a fight to create a distraction while the inferno was being lit, Teamsters officials were never charged in the blaze.

The fire that killed 97 people on New Years Eve 1986 was just one of four fires that were set at the Hotel DuPont.

Within three weeks of the fire, three men were arrested.  Aponte was charged with, “setting fire to the Dupont Plaza Hotel on New Year’s Eve, in agreement with others.” José Rivera López, and Arnaldo Jiménez Rivera were also arrested and charged.

According to reports, the three planned on setting numerous fires in the hotel with the intent to scare the guests away. Aponte is still serving time in federal prison. Jimenez and Lopez were released from prison in 2001 and 2002, respectively, after massive sentence reductions in appeals court. To this day, union officials deny any involvement with the horrific incident and make nary a mention of it, when memorializing victims of fires involving labor workers.