25 years later, Happy Land tragedy still burns

Plaza of the Eighty-Seven, a memorial dedicated to the 87 people that perished in the Happylands Nightclub tragedy, located just across the street from site.
Steven Goodstein / Community News Group

It has been 25 years since the occurrence of one of the the worst tragedies in New York history, and a quarter of a century later, the Bronx still has not forgotten.

This upcoming Wednesday, March 25, will mark the 25-year anniversary of the Happy Land Social Club fire, a horrific inferno that devoured a illegal two-story night club located on 1959 Southern Boulevard, killing 87 party goers, mostly of Honduran descent, in 1990.

The fire was started by unemployed Cuban immigrant Julio Gonzalez who came to the United States from Cuba on the Mariel boatlift in 1980.

At about 2 a.m. on the morning of the tragedy, Gonzalez went to the club to win back his ex-girlfriend, Lydia Feliciano, who worked as a coat check and hat check girl. Their romance had ended several months earlier.

At the club, Gonzalez had reportedly told Feliciano that he loved her and that he wanted her back, but she had already started dating someone else.

Though rebuffed, the gilted lover continued to hang out at the club. When he approached her again a fight ensued leading to Gonzalez being removed by a bouncer. Gonzalez responded to the bouncer, “I’ll be back.”

A short time later, Gonzalez, who was described by neighbors as both kind and quiet, went back to the club carrying a canister with $1 worth of gasoline that he had purchased from a nearby Amoco station at Southern Boulevard and 172nd Street.

He then poured the gasoline through the club’s only entranceway and stairwell before igniting the combustible, hoping to get even with Feliciano.

The result – a raging inferno that resulted in 87 deaths, 59 of them of Hondurans, who had been in the night club that evening and morning celebrating Carnival.

This tragedy took place exactly 79 years after another similar disaster, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which killed 146 garment workers on March 25, 1911.

Most of the deaths at Happy Land occurred due to smoke inhalation.

During his trial it was disclosed that Gonzalez was not supportive of Feliciano working at Happy Land.

He believed that if she didn’t have the job at the club, she would have had to rely on him financially, which very well may have been the reason for his actions.

On the morning of the fire, he had reportedly told her, “Just watch – tomorrow, you’re not going to work here anymore.”

He was right. However, he was unsuccessful in his attempts to kill his ex-girlfriend, as she was one of the five survivors of the tragedy.

Gonzalez was arrested the next day at his home on 31 Buchanan Place and taken to the 48th Precinct, and in September 1991, he was sentenced to 174 twenty-five year sentences (87 counts of murder and 87 counts of arson), a total of 4,350 years, which was the most substantial prison term ever imposed in the state of New York.

Gonzalez is currently serving his time at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, NY, and is eligible for parole this month.

Although the arsonist Gonzalez was found to be criminally responsible, the city filed misdemeanor charges against building owner Alex DiLorenzo III and landlord Jay Weiss, who was then married to actress Kathleen Turner, in February 1991, claiming that they were both responsible for building code violations – facility deficiencies that unquestionably led to more deaths in the tragedy.

They both pled guilty in May 1992, agreeing to perform community service and pay $150,000 towards a Bronx community center for Hondurans.

In its short history prior to the tragedy, it was clear that Happy Land Social Club wasn’t the safest place for its customers, who paid $5 per night to get in.

In 1988, both the Department of Buildings commissioner Charles M. Smith, Jr. and the mayor’s Social Club Task Force issued an order to vacate the building, due to violations such as no secondary means of exit, no emergency lighting and no sprinkler system.

The club also had a very narrow stairwell, which impeded egress, and the club’s dance area was on the second floor. No follow-up visits were documented.

A Mass will be held on Wednesday, March 25 at 6 p.m. at St. Thomas Aquinas Church, 1900 Crotona Parkway. After the Mass, those in attendance will walk to the Plaza of the Eighty-Seven, a memorial dedicated to the 87 victims located just across the street from the former night club for a vigil to mourn the loss of loved ones.

Both have been planned by Community Board 6 and some of those who lost family members in the tragedy for the past 15 years.

“The incident, although very painful for our community, has significantly improved our awareness regarding the rules and regulations of any business or facility in the area,” said district manager Ivine Galarza.

“This tragedy has become a lesson – and it is because of this incident that this board now inspects all of the businesses in its area, to make sure an incident like this doesn’t take place again in the future.”

Reach Reporter Steven Goodstein at (718) 742–3384. E-mail him at sgoodstein@cnglocal.com.

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