Saturday, August 4, 2012

A River of Tears:Happy Land

Mariel Bay, Cuba

9:00 A.M., May 15, 1980
The young man, who was just 26 years old, he didn’t think much. Most of his time was spent following others. He had been that way as far back as he could remember. When the guards kicked the prisoners out of their stinking cells that morning, he simply followed behind the people in front of him. But he hadn’t committed any real crime; on this occasion, that is. He simply told the police that he was a drug dealer so he could join the boatlift to leave Cuba. The guards marched them quickly through the forest toward the bay. A rolling surf pounded against the beaches with a familiar rhythm as they gathered at the edge of the sea to wait. They huddled onto a dilapidated wooden dock that seemed to barely hold the crushing weight of hundreds of people. They stood in rows of threes as Castro’s troops, their AK-47s held at the ready, hurried them along. “Vamanos! Vamanos!” the soldiers yelled as they pushed the helpless men and women toward the swaying boat at the end of the dock. The crowd moved quickly for they knew the soldiers would shoot them down like dogs at the first provocation. “Vamanos desgraciado!” they screamed as they beat the prisoners with long, flexible sticks held in one hand and drank cerveza with the other. Of course, these people didn’t know where they were going and didn’t really care. Anything was better than a Cuban prison where there was no food, little water and lots of muerte. Some said they were headed for America, though none could really comprehend this. What government would be crazy enough to take in another country’s criminals?
Somewhere among this multitude, the young man, who was wearing rags and hadn’t eaten in two days, glanced around him. He had deserted the Cuban Army in the early seventies and spent 3 years in prison. He recognized some of these men since he had been in jail with them in 1974. They were thieves, drug addicts, the mentally deranged, rapists, murderers and worse. There were political prisoners too, for Castro’s jails made no distinction between them and other common criminals. These people were the national flotsam of Cuba: the corrupted and depraved, the rejected and the homeless. They joined a hundred thousand other refugees who would soon risk life and limb to reach the shores of a magical country they could easily die to see. They were a small part of a larger group, a footnote to history. And although these prisoners represented less than 4% of the immigrants who arrived in America during this tumultuous period, this era would mostly be remembered as the time Fidel Castro emptied his jails and dumped Cuba’s unwanted into Carter’s lap. This ragtag exodus became known as the Freedom Flotilla and these people were later called los marielitos.
The crowds shuffled along the dock, like so much cattle, until they were tossed on the boat deck by two powerfully built soldiers who alternately cursed and beat the prisoners between gulps of warm beer. The tropical heat was brutal; several women fainted and were lying on the deck unattended as the frightened mass simply stepped over their bodies, eager to escape the swinging whips of the guards. The boat trembled as the shifting weight caused it to tilt dangerously to port. When it finally got under way, its ancient engine kicking and gasping for air, the boat seemed as if it would barely make it out of Mariel Bay. But out to sea it went, northeast, across an azure sea, on its perilous journey to the fabled country that, for them, existed only in their dreams. For most of these refugees, however, that dream would soon become a nightmare when they later found themselves languishing for months and years in detention centers in Arkansas and Wisconsin, the pawns of bureaucratic red tape and the ever-shifting political winds. Barely two weeks later, on May 31, 1980, at Key West, Florida, Julio Gonzalez, 25 years old, uneducated, impoverished, a military deserter in his own country, a man who, so far, had accomplished nothing in life, an ex-convict with no possessions and no future, arrived in America.

East Tremont

Eventually, Julio Gonzalez made his way to New York City where a large number of los marielitos seemed to gather. Through his sponsor, the American Council for Nationalities, he assimilated into American society without incident. Later, he managed to secure a series of low-paying jobs, which gave him barely enough money to live in one of the most expensive cities in America. He met a woman in 1984, Lydia Feliciano, who worked in a social club named Happy Land in the East Tremont section of the Bronx. Soon he moved into her apartment and for the next few years, drifted along in anonymity, making few friends, barely surviving and living a life that, even in its paucity, was infinitely better than that in Cuba.
East Tremont Avenue
East Tremont Avenue
The area of East Tremont Avenue near Southern Boulevard in the Bronx is an area that has undergone a vast amount of ethnic, social and economic change after the Second World War. Then a neighborhood of primarily Italian and Irish immigrants, it evolved into an African American community during the late 50s and 60s. During the 70s and 80s the area became a vibrant business enclave for the Hispanic immigrants from Puerto Rico, Honduras, Ecuador and Mexico.
Each ethnic group maintained its own culture, traditions and heritage in the form of social clubs along East Tremont Avenue, Southern Boulevard and the surrounding neighborhoods. No one really knew how many existed since most of these clubs operated in violation of city ordinances that were designed to prevent such clubs to conduct business in an unsafe and illegal manner[1]. Social clubs are usually located back from street front locations away from the prying eyes of police and inspectors who had the authority to shut these places down upon discovery. But on the weekend nights these clubs would rock with the sounds of marenge, Carlos Santana, all variations of Latino music and especially the legendary Tito Puente, a Bronx icon. Such a club was Happy Land.
This club was unique from the other bars in the Tremont neighborhood since it became the central meeting place for the Honduran community in the Bronx. These immigrants, from Central America’s poorest country, also tended to be from the same region in Honduras: the northern border near Nicaragua. They came to America for the same reasons all other immigrants come: to seek a better life, escape grinding poverty and chase the mythic American Dream. Happy Land catered to the Hondurans by supplying customers with the homeland beer, Salavida, and sponsoring a soccer team for neighborhood youth. Unlike the Puerto Ricans, who have a much larger presence in New York City, Hondurans maintain a more fragmented community than other ethnic groups. Illegal social clubs pulled them together and provided a center for all types of social activities.
Located at 1959 Southern Boulevard, just off East Tremont Avenue, Happy Land was a major attraction for the Honduran and Dominican communities in East Tremont. It was a place where immigrants could go to catch a glimpse of the old country, interact and be with fellow countrymen and women. Happy Land also sponsored a Little league baseball team. Baseball is very popular in Central America and especially the Dominican Republic. Chicago Cub Sammy Sosa, a Dominican native, is considered almost a god in his country. The club hosted many parties for the league players and on the weekends, Happy Land was packed wall to wall with patrons who almost all knew each other by sight. “It’s a connection to our culture” one customer told the newspapers (Parascandola and Peyser, p.17).
[1] TIME magazine reported on April 9, 1990 that over 1,000 such clubs existed in New York City (p. 38)

‘Fuego! Fuego!’

March 25, 1990 was the weekend of Punta Carnivale, which is the Honduran equivalent of Mardi Gras. Upstairs in the Happy Land bar, at about 2:30 AM this early Sunday morning, Julio Gonzalez, the Cuban Army deserter and ex-convict, was sitting with his ex-girlfriend, Lydia Feliciano, 45. Julio recently lost his job as a warehouseman at a lamp factory in Queens. He was having a hard time paying his rent and was reduced to hustling on the streets of the South Bronx. At the bar, he drank beer and argued with Lydia who had been living with him on and off for six years. There were also words about Lydia’s employment at the club, Julio wanted her to quit and she refused. Lydia didn’t want much to do with Gonzalez anymore and refused to take him back. She told him that she had lots of potential boyfriends. Her family had already pressured her to end the relationship. But Julio persisted until Lydia finally tried to leave him at the bar. He grabbed her and a bouncer intervened. Somewhere around 3 AM, when the bouncer intervened. Julio became angrier.
“She’s my woman, not yours!” he screamed, his fingers pointing at the bouncer and hands waving toward the ground.
The bouncer escorted Julio out of Happy Land, but he continued to argue in front of the club on Southern Boulevard while other patrons watched in amusement. “Regresare, ha cerrar esto!” (I will be back! I’ll shut this place down!) Julio screamed as he walked off into the night. Assuming he went home, the bouncer returned to the party on the second floor.
The container used by Gonzalez to start the Happy Land fire
The container used by
Gonzalez to start the Happy
Land fire
Julio was enraged. He had no job, no money and no prospects. And the only stabilizing influence in his life, Lydia Feliciano, had just dumped him. He walked over to East Tremont and Crotona Parkway where the idea of burning Happy Land first came to him. He walked three blocks away to an Amoco gas station at 174th St. and Southern Boulevard On the way, he found an empty one gallon Blackhawk Hydraulic Jack Oil container.
Inside the gas station, Edward Porras, 23, a Lehman College freshman, was working his first day on the job. He tried to buy gas but Porras refused at first. Julio told him that his car broke down. Another man who was hanging around the station told the attendant that he knew Julio and that he was all right. Julio gave Porras one dollar and filled the container. Later when Porras found out he was the one who sold Gonzalez the gas, he said: “I don’t know why this happened to me!” (Oliver, p. 9).
So, at about 3:30 AM, Julio approached East Tremont Avenue carrying his $1 worth of gasoline. He walked the 50 feet from the corner to the street level entrance to Happy Land. There was no one standing in the doorway at that time. All the customers who were usually found out front were upstairs drinking and dancing to the D.J. music. The building itself seemed to rock from the pulsating music. Gonzalez, full of beer and anger, his sense of machismo deeply wounded, spilled gasoline onto the floor and steps of the hallway. Several patrons who were at the top of the steps saw him in the shadows below, but thought nothing of it.
When he finished dumping the gas, he stepped back. Gonzalez lit two matches and threw them onto the floor. Immediately, the gas ignited. Volatility is highest when gasoline is first exposed to air. Even just a small amount will burst into what seems like an explosion if conditions are right. The fire quickly flamed up but remained confined inside the hallway area between two doors: the one that led to the street and the inside door that led upstairs. Gonzalez walked across the street and watched.
A police diagram of the Happy Land social club, March 26, 1990
A police diagram of the Happy Land
social club, March 26, 1990
Inside Happy Land, Lydia Feliciano, seeing the flames behind the front door, began to scream “Fuego!” from the coat check area. Roberto Argueta, 23, who was at Happy Land since midnight, was picking up his coat and preparing to leave with Orbin Nunez Galea when he heard the yelling. He and his friends saw the flames fully engulf the entranceway. They thought they had no way out. But Lydia led them to a little used door on the north side of the club. When the terrified group reached the exit, they found that the outside metal gate was in the down position preventing them from opening the door. Frantically, one of the men managed to reach between the door and the gate and with great effort, raised the metal barrier up enough to open the door. They ran out onto Southern Boulevard, not realizing at the time how truly lucky they were.
On the second floor, the music was blasting and most in the crowd were unaware of what was happening. They had no way of knowing they had just minutes to live. The fire burned ferociously within the enclosed hallway as the inside door began to glow red from the heat. The D.J., Ruben Valladarez, saw what was happening and tried to warn the crowd. He could see the fire down below from the 2nd floor landing. He stopped the music, raised up the houselights and screamed to the crowd. Some people began to take notice and tried to exit. They crowded around the stairway to go down but were turned back by the smoke and the heat. The situation was becoming desperate. But Ruben decided to take his chances. He bounded down the steps, bypassing the partygoers, crawling between their legs and crashed through the inside door tumbling into the street below. He lay on the sidewalk, smoldering, his clothes burned off. He was badly injured but he survived.
Victims of the fire in front of 1959 Southern Boulevard, March 25, 1990
Victims of the fire in front of 1959
Southern Boulevard, March 25, 1990
Now that the door was opened, oxygen poured onto the fire and a powerful draft was created. The effect was very similar to a chimney. The fire exploded to life and charged up the wooden steps and into the room. The people on the top of the steps screamed and fled in terror. “Fuego! Fuego!” they screamed. Within seconds, a huge cloud of toxic, black smoke filled the staircase. As the blaze began to feed upon itself, the heat increased dramatically. The realization of a fire then became immediate to everyone. Soon the crowd on the dance floor was in a full panic as the black smoke poured unobstructed into the room. There were no windows in the 60′ by 20′ club. People instinctively fell to the floor face down where at least they could breathe if only for seconds. For some it was already too late. Those sitting at the tables had already inhaled the poison gasses and a few breaths of such a mixture is all it takes.
Smoke from this type of fire is loaded with carbon monoxide, aldehydes, cyanide and other gases emitted from burning wood and plastics. Blood cells absorb carbon monoxide readily, even faster than oxygen, causing immediate unconsciousness and imminent death. That is why statistically, most people in a fire die from smoke inhalation rather than burn injuries. In Happy Land, there was no ventilation on the second floor, which contributed to the high concentration of airborne poisons. What little air existed in the club was replaced by thick, acrid smoke containing a lethal combination of burning gases. It is frightening to see the speed at which this type of fire can travel. Death can come very, very fast. Dr. Yurta of the Medical Examiner’s Office later said: “If you consider together carbon monoxide poisoning, oxygen deprivation and the effects of toxic substances in the smoke, death could in some cases be almost immediate, within a matter of seconds” (Angier, p. 1). Some patrons were later found sitting at their tables still clutching their drinks. Those closest to the stairwell died first, where 19 bodies were later found in a pile. Some had severe burns, but all died from smoke inhalation.
The fire roared like an express train out of control. People were screaming and fighting each other to get to the stairway. But the way out was fully engulfed by flames. In less than three minutes, the second floor was filled with dense, compacted smoke and lethal gases, which were concentrated to extremely high levels. By the dozens, the partygoers fell into unconsciousness, stumbling onto the chairs, tables and each other. The fire continued to burn unmercifully, sending superheated gases into the room, filling every nook and cranny, every corner, every square inch of space with poison smoke until the crying, the panic and the suffering stopped. Then, there was only silence. Silence but for the persistent sounds of reggae and Honduran calypso still playing in the background, a faint reminder of the brutality of life and the indiscriminate cruelty of death. In less time than it takes to read this chapter, eighty-seven people, along with their dreams, their hopes and a lost future that would never happen, lay dead on the floor under a sign that read Happy Land.
Outside the front door of Happy Land as the dead are removed. March 25, 1990
Outside the front door of Happy
Land as the dead are removed.
March 25, 1990

At the Scene

Outside the club on Southern Boulevard, pedestrians heard the muffled screams coming from the second floor. Ruben Vallardarez was writhing in agony in the street, still smoldering from his leap to life, the only one to escape from the second floor. The fire department was already notified. It received the alarm at 3:41 AM. Within three minutes, fire apparatus from Ladder Company 58 arrived at the scene. When firefighters first drove on the block, they had no idea of the magnitude of the fire. It was very quiet inside Happy Land. “There were no screams. There was no sound at all,” a firefighter later told the N.Y. Post (Koleniak, p. 2) NY Post 3.26). As the firefighters applied water to the hallway, on the steps they saw several bodies. They entered into the darkness and began to pull out several victims. Soon, the numbers multiplied. The rescuers found a total of 19 bodies. As bad as it was, they thought, at least, it was over. Bronx firefighters are accustomed to the dead.
In front of Happy Land on the morning of March 25, 1990
In front of Happy Land on the
morning of March 25, 1990
Other firemen then began to climb the steps and up to the second floor. As they entered the darkened room, the floor felt strange under their feet. They tripped over piles of clothes and unknown bundles. But slowly, the horrible truth dawned upon them: they were walking and crawling on bodies. Everywhere the firemen aimed their flashlights, they saw bodies piled upon bodies. “What we saw was not unlike the after battle scene of any war movie. Only this was real,” said Firefighter Craig Buccieri, Ladder Co. 33, assigned to relief duty at the club (W.N.Y.F, p. 4).
Inside the second floor of Happy Land, March 25 1990
Inside the second floor of Happy
Land, March 25 1990
Once the fire was extinguished and the club ventilated of smoke, the reality began to emerge. “As the smoke lifted, the magnitude of the tragedy was uncovered, so enormous, it was hard to fathom,” reported Deputy Chief Kenneth Cerreta, Division 7 to the W.N.Y.F. (p. 2). The victims were dressed in party clothes or their Saturday night best. They lay on the floor, entwined with each other, some holding hands or grasping their throats. One man still held a fire extinguisher in his hands. Many had their arms outstretched as if to reach for the door. A scene so horrible, it shook the most hardened firefighter to the core. “The worst! The worst!” mumbled one fireman. The people seemed frozen in some grotesque parody. It had the sense of the surreal, like some Nazi gas chamber. Assistant Chief Frank Nastro was on the 2nd floor of Happy Land: “The scene was paralyzing. We stood there numbed. No one spoke. There were 69 bodies spread about this 24×50 foot area. They all could have been sleeping” (W.N.Y.F., p. 2).
For the men of the New York City Fire Department who worked the fire, they would never forget the horrors of that night. Special units were sent out to all firehouses whose members worked the Happy Land scene to help with the lingering emotional stress. Psychological counseling was made available to all rescue crews who were present. It’s not easy to look at, pick up, touch and feel 87 dead bodies. Lt. Richard J. Bittles of Ladder Co. 58, First Alarm Unit describes the men at the fire: “In their eyes was the hollow and distant look of men who could not believe what had occurred” (W.N.Y.F., p. 3).
As the true dimensions of the tragedy emerged, city officials flocked to the scene en masse. Mayor David Dinkins arrived quickly and surveyed the incredible carnage. First Deputy Mayor Norman Siegel said, “It was shocking. None of the bodies I saw showed signs of burns” (Blumenthal, p. B4). Police Commisoner Lee Brown, Fire Commissioner Carlos Rivera, 1st Deputy Commissioner Ray Kelly, Chief of Detective Joseph Borelli and a virtual army of reporters and photographers arrived at East Tremont and Southern Boulevard. Already the question of accountability was raised. It was common knowledge that Happy Land was one of hundreds of illegal social clubs that existed in the city. An immediate inquiry into the city’s role was begun. Even as the bodies of the victims lay on Southern Boulevard, clerks at City Hall were digging through official records, code violations and inspection logs. The question of why Happy Land was allowed to exist had to be answered. It was the worst fire in New York City since the notorious Triangle Shirt factory, which, by a strange coincidence, occurred March 25, 1911, exactly 79 years ago on the same day as Happy Land. And like the Bronx blaze, nearly all the victims were young immigrants. At least 146 people died in that tragedy which eventually inspired many reforms in the fire code and safety laws of New York City[1]. It was soon discovered that Happy Land was ordered closed by the city for building code violations in November 1988. The club was cited for no fire exits, alarms or sprinkler system. Follow-up was supposed to be conducted by the Fire Department but it was unknown exactly what had transpired. Politicians, as is their manner, promised investigations and revelations. But for eighty-seven immigrants, it mattered little which bureaucrat failed in his responsibilities.
[1] The worst fire in New York City and one of the worst in American history was an explosion and fire in 1904 on board an excursion ship, the General Slocum, which burned in the East River near Hell’s Gate. Over 1,000 people lost their lives in this tragedy.

Capture and Arrest

After setting the blaze, Gonzalez stood in front of the club and watched it burn. Then he calmly walked across the street and waited for a few minutes as the fire began to take hold. Within seconds, fire apparatus arrived and the firemen began to go to work. EMS arrived soon after, parking the ambulance just feet from where Gonzalez stood. He sipped his beer as the first body was carried out the front door of Happy Land. Then he walked the few yards over to East Tremont Avenue and boarded the #40 bus westbound. On the bus ride home, Gonzalez began to cry, thinking about what he had done. He went directly to 31 Buchanan Place, off Jerome Avenue, to his apartment, which consisted of one cramped room. Yvonne Torres, another tenant, later told police she saw him arrive at about 4:15 AM. Gonzalez entered the lobby and soon knocked on a neighbor’s door, Pedro Rivera. Carmen Melendez, Rivera’s girlfriend, opened the door. Gonzalez told Carmen that he had trouble at Happy Land and started crying. He said that he killed Lydia and that he burned the club down. Carmen didn’t believe him and seeing that Gonzalez had been drinking, told him to go home and go to sleep. He went to his apartment, removed his gasoline soaked clothes and promptly fell asleep.
At about the same time Gonzalez collapsed upon his bed, a few miles away at the four-eight precinct, Det. Kevin Moroney, a senior investigator with over 20 years with the New York City Police Department, was told about a fire at a nearby social club. “I was doing a turnaround that night,” he recently said, waiting for his next on-duty tour to begin. “One of the other detectives came running into my office and yelled that 80 people were killed in a fire. My first reaction was what the hell is he talking about? I never heard of such a thing, I didn’t believe it at first,” he said. Within minutes it seemed, an onslaught of people descended upon the four-eight. Uniformed officers brought in potential witnesses and survivors, the press began to assemble, local district attorneys and assistants appeared, fire department personnel, police department brass, politicians and a platoon of detectives all came to the front desk of the four-eight until the lobby was jammed with a mixture of frantic people all clamoring for immediate and urgent attention. It was pandemonium. Det. Moroney never reached the front door of the precinct house. “I never made it to the street. Witnesses had to be interviewed, statements had to be taken. We did not know what happened, all we knew was that lots of people were dead,” the detective recalled.
Det. Kevin Moroney and Det. Andy Lugo with Gonzalez
Det. Kevin Moroney and Det. Andy
Lugo with Gonzalez
Moroney and his partner, Det. Andy Lugo began to piece together a first draft of what happened at Happy Land. Slowly, the story began to emerge. “We finally spoke to Lydia Feliciano later that day. She left the scene and never told anyone where she was. In fact, at the time, no one even knew that she was vital to the case. As soon as she said that she had a fight with her ex-boyfriend and that he left the club angry just before the fire, we had strong suspicions” Det. Moroney said.
At about 4 PM that same day, Detectives Maroney and Lugo went over to 31 Buchanan Place and knocked on the door of Julio Gonzalez’ third floor apartment.
“Quien es?” a voice behind the door asked.
“Policia! Deceamos hablar contigo,” replied Det. Lugo.
“Si,” the voice replied.
Julio Gonzalez taken on March 25, 1990
Julio Gonzalez taken
on March 25, 1990
When Gonzalez opened it, the detectives were immediately overwhelmed by the odor of gasoline. They asked him to come over to the police station to talk about the fire. Gonzalez didn’t seem too upset at the time. Moroney said that he wasn’t surprised to find Julio sleeping. Cops are familiar with the curious sleep habits of criminals. They know that even after the most horrendous crimes imaginable, suspects will fall asleep; in the rear of a police car, at the station, during booking, in cuffs, anywhere at all. It doesn’t matter how violent the crime, how shocking or brutal, a criminal will fall asleep as if he didn’t have a care in the world. Gonzalez put on his gasoline soaked shoes and went with the detectives.
Gonzalez was taken over to the four-eight where he was read Miranda Warnings in Spanish and agreed to talk about the incident. Det. Moroney said that he turned to get a cup a coffee and before he could give it to Gonzalez, Julio immediately began to confess. “We practically didn’t even have to ask him anything,” he said. He told police that he set the fire for revenge against Lydia Feliciano. He said that he was angry that she broke up with him and wouldn’t take him back. “I don’t know, it looks like something bad got into me, it looks like the devil got into me!” Gonzalez said in his confession. He was later arraigned in Bronx Criminal Court at 2 AM on 87 counts of murder, the worst mass murder in American history up to that time. In a highly unusual move, Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson handled the court appearance himself in front of Judge Alexander Hunter. Gonzalez was held without bail and taken to a local psychiatric ward where he was held as a suicide risk.
“Date with the Devil” New
York Post
March 27,1990

“Por Que, Mi Dios, Por Que?”

Over the next few days, a tidal wave of grief and anguish swept over the South Bronx. More than 60 of the people who died at Happy Land were of Honduran descent. More than 90 children became orphans. Over 40 parents lost their children, some lost more than one. Seventeen players on the county league’s soccer teams were killed in the fire. In nearby Roosevelt High School in the Fordham section, five students died in the smoke and flames of Happy Land. There was almost no one in the Honduran community who was not affected in some way by the tragedy. Even in Honduras itself, the towns and villages of those who were killed were plunged into mourning. The newspapers spoke of little else except el fuego en Estados Unidos.
How the New York Post reported the arrest of Julio Gonzalez, March 25, 1990
How the New York Post
reported the arrest of Julio
Gonzalez, March 25, 1990
Rio de lagrimas (A river of tears) began in the Rivera Funeral Home on Bathgate Avenue where seventeen of the fire victims lay in repose. Outside, in the mean streets of the South Bronx, life came to a halt as the shrieks from grieving families filled the neighborhoods. A funeral procession started on the morning of March 28 from Rivera’s to St. Joseph’s Church across the street. In a grim caravan of death, seventeen caskets were carried into the church as the crying multitude, many on their knees, prayed for deliverance from the grief and pain. “Por que? Por que?” a woman wept. “Llevame contis!” (Take me with you!) cried another. People fainted. The hysteria and the suffering were overpowering inside the church. Rev. Henry Mills gave a tear-filled sermon as mothers and fathers collapsed in the pews. “We pray this evening that the Lord may strengthen our understanding. We hope the Lord eternal will lead them to his home!” he said (Scwwartzman, p.2). The intense and solemn refrains of Ave Maria echoed through the church and into the streets that were strangely quiet and devoid of the usual frenetic activity that typifies life in the South Bronx.
All across the borough, in small neighborhood chapels and churches, anguish engulfed family, friends and strangers alike. Long lines of mourners waited patiently to view the bodies at a dozen funeral homes, which were overwhelmed by the sudden influx of business. The crowds were kept at bay by police barricades, usually reserved for sporting events and traffic control. At St. Thomas Aquinas Church a few blocks away, the people lay on the front steps, weeping for the young and the lost, whose torn photos seemed to appear everywhere, on doors, walls, mailboxes, taped to clothing and windows, a transient shrine to the dead, a movable wailing wall for weeping families who knew no peace.
In front of Happy Land, a mountain of flowers and memorabilia began to accumulate. A steady stream of traffic crawled past its doors on Southern Boulevard, curious on-lookers striving to catch a glimpse of where so many died. Fire Marshals from the Fire Department sifted through the rubble searching for clues and evidence of the fire. Most people blamed city government for allowing Happy Land to remain open despite numerous safety code violations. There was a strong impression that East Tremont was always an area that suffered from benign neglect by city officials. “This neighborhood has never gotten the proper service,” Pedro Segul told the N. Y. Post (Parascodola, p.4). It was a sentiment that was shared by many. But in between the seething bitterness, and sometimes angry shouts, was an onslaught of grief and despair. And no assurances of rectitude by politicians or promises of belated investigations would bring back the souls of the dead or alleviate the horror of mass murder.

The Trial

The trial of Julio Gonzalez, which was held in the Bronx in the summer of 1991, was a formality. That’s not to say it was unjust. Rather, in a testament to the principles of due process of law, Judge Burton B. Roberts bent over backwards to ensure the proceedings were conducted in a fair and legal manner. Of course, the evidence against Gonzalez was overwhelming: his gasoline-soaked clothes, his many admissions to friends on the night of the event, the recovered container, multiple statements of witnesses and his own lengthy and detailed confession to Moroney and Lugo. Testimony as to Gonzalez’ sanity was allowed and although that avenue of defense was explored, it was ultimately rejected by the court.
On August 19, 1991, the same day that the notorious anti-Jewish Crown Heights riots began in Brooklyn, Julio Gonzalez was found guilty in one of the worst mass murders in American history. After four days of jury deliberations, he was convicted of arson charges and 174 counts of murder, two for each victim killed in the fire. The verdict, which took over 5 minutes to read, was announced at 1 PM when the jury foreman, Luis Rodriguez repeated the word “guilty” an unprecedented 174 times. Relatives of the victims present in the courtroom, solemn at first, gradually fell apart as the verdict proceeded. Many screamed in grief as the dazed families held onto each other, sobbing uncontrollably. Gonzalez sat transfixed in his chair, a pathetic figure of defeat and despair, his facial expression rigid and unforgiving.
Headline, September 20, 1991
Headline, September 20,
On September 19, 1991, Gonzalez was sentenced to 25 years to life on each of the 174 counts of murder, a sentence that was without equal in New York State history. However, he could still be released after 25 years since in New York, any sentence for an act committed during a single offense must be served concurrently, not consecutively. In the courtroom, hundreds of relatives and friends cheered the sentence as Judge Roberts gave Gonzalez the maximum allowed by law. Of course some relatives saw this sentence as an injustice since 25 years equals only 3 months for each murder. In the courtroom, Gonzalez refused to make any statement in his own defense. For whatever it was worth to the families, he would not be eligible for parole until March 2015.

Ten Years Later

The Clinton Detention Center is located in the Town of Dannemora in upstate New York, approximately 300 miles from East Tremont and Southern Boulevard. Clinton is the largest prison facility in New York and today houses over 2,600 inmates including Julio Gonzales. In the 19th century, prisoners were put to work mining and processing iron ore in the nearby Adirondack Mountains. Executions were carried out in Clinton from 1895 until 1914 when downstate Sing Sing prison installed another electric chair. The infamous Dannemora State Hospital for Insane Convicts, which opened in 1900, was located at Clinton until it closed in 1972, a relic from another era.
Inside the high, gloomy walls of Clinton Prison, Julio Gonzalez sits in his cell for a period of 25 years to life, surely never to emerge again, his journey from the beaches at Mariel Bay over at last. He will be eligible for parole in about 15 years. But there is little sympathy for this man and he will most likely die in prison. There is a real sense of injustice felt by the victim’s families, for one life seems a vastly inadequate price to pay for the deaths of 87 others. One thing is certain: nothing can bring back the victims.
The monument to the Happy Land victims
The monument to the Happy Land
Today, in front of 1959 Southern Boulevard, a monument stands in memory to the dead. It’s an eight-foot-tall concrete obelisk, surrounded by a high metal fence. On the sides of the structure the names of the victims are engraved in the stone, a final reminder of 87 lost lives. Across the street, the club that was Happy Land remains vacant and probably will be for many years. No one dances there today. Many of the families have since moved away, some returned to Honduras, taking their grief with them. In 1995, a civil suit was settled for $15 million. Judge Burton Roberts presided over the civil trial as well. The funds were to be distributed to each of the victim’s families. Life, as it is said, must go on.
But on quiet summer evenings, one can almost visualize nights passed when the hot, pounding rhythms of calypsos emanated from the Happy Land disco. The echoes of laughter and good times might be heard bouncing off the walls into the corridors and hallways, reverberating across Southern Boulevard, into the streets and around the corner to Tremont Avenue. You can close your eyes and imagine the young, writhing bodies moving to the pulsating sounds of Latino music as they dance the night away, the hard life in the South Bronx forgotten for a few hours, their memories, softened by drink, turning back to the fields and mountains of Honduras, to home, oblivious to the grinding poverty and hunger that brought them to America. But there’s nothing left now of Happy Land, only a boarded store front and the faint, lingering ghosts of the dead, espiritu de los muertos, who like their dreams, disappear from memory and reality until one day, their names will become forgotten by most, a vanishing remnant of a tragedy whose cause and purpose seem more insane with each passing year.
Happy Land after the fire in March 1990
Happy Land after the fire in March

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