Dupont Plaza Hotel
December 31, 1986: Three disgruntled employees set a fire that kills 97 and injures 140 more at the Dupont Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Local 901 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters was in negotiations with the hotel for a raise in wages for the union member employees. Three employees started a fire on the ground floor outside the Ballroom and Casino areas at around 3:30 PM. Intense heat blew out the plate glass window, causing a flashover. Within twelve minutes almost 100 were dead.
Flammable liquid was placed in a storage area with plastic covered furniture. The furniture was mostly made of synthetic, petroleum-based materials. Both the plastic and the furniture released an intense heat and poisonous gases as they burned. Most of the dead suffered from smoke inhalation, many burned beyond recognition. In the week prior to this fire, three other fires had been set and contained. Management had employed an extra 30 security guards to patrol the hotel. Surviving guests tell of a work slowdown and many knew of the union-management discord but they were unable to move because other hotels in the area were fully booked.
Guests had heard gossiping among the employees. There had been radio commercials and handbills passed out from the union stating that those who were thinking of celebrating New Year’s Eve at the penthouse party at the hotel should know that the party would be inadequately staffed and guests may wish to party elsewhere. These were not intimidating commercials. Ten minutes before the fire broke out, the union turned down management’s last offer prior to a strike that was to begin at midnight.
Guests told of workers leaving their posts thirty minutes before the fire. Union official report that they were coming to a union meeting held in the ballroom. Union officials deny any fore-knowledge of the fire. It is thought that those setting the fire were hoping to damage the building but did not mean to cause mass murder. The hotel is now under the Marriott name.
“The essence of trade unionism is social uplift. The labor movement has been the haven for the dispossessed, the despised, the neglected, the downtrodden, the poor.” – A. Phillip Randolph
“With all their faults, trade unions have done more for humanity than any other organization of men that ever existed. They have done more for decency, for honesty, for education, for the betterment of the race, for the developing of character in men, than any other association of men.” – Clarence Darrow
“You can’t do it unless you organize.” – Samuel Gompers
“We must learn to live together as brothers or we are going to perish together as fools.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Also on this day, in 1960 the British stopped honoring the farthing (a quarter of a penny) as legal tender.