SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Fire raged through a luxury hotel packed with New Year's vacationers Wednesday, and officials said they believed 50 or more people had been killed.
The fire at the 21-story Dupont Plaza Hotel injured more than 100 people and spilled thick black smoke over San Juan's beachfront tourist strip.
The cause of the fire was unknown, but some guests said they heard explosions immediately before the fire started. The flames swept through the hotel's crowded mezzanine casino, where many of the dead were found.
A large number of the dead and injured were believed to be tourists from the U.S. mainland. Some victims were burned beyond recognition, and Dist. Atty. Frederico Quinones said officials could not immediately provide a list of the dead.
Copters Rescue Guests
A half-dozen helicopters plucked guests from the hotel's top floor, including a U.S. Navy helicopter that made repeated trips. Hook-and-ladder fire trucks assisted rescue operations.
Some guests were trapped inside the hotel and a reporter saw more than a dozen people waiting on the balconies of floors 13, 14 and 15 to be rescued by helicopters.
Other guests jumped from windows and used sheets to escape from the 450-room facility.
One person trapped inside dropped a pillow with a message from the 17th floor. It read: "Can't get up. Smoke. \o7 No entiende espanol. \f7 . . . One woman pregnant. Room 1711."
About three hours after the fire began, Fire Department spokesman Luis E. Moran said flames had been extinguished at the point of origin on the first and second floors, but black smoke still filled much of the building.
"This is a cemetery," one weary firefighter said of the scene in and around the hotel, which was heavily damaged.
Danny Velez, press secretary to Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon, said late Wednesday night that the search for bodies would be suspended until morning for safety reasons.
The Dupont Plaza, the former Sheraton Hotel, is one of the largest tourist hotels in Puerto Rico. It is located along a stretch of beachfront in the main Condado tourist section.
A large circular driveway leads to the hotel's main entrance on the mezzanine level. The casino is on an east wing of the mezzanine and above a first-floor ballroom.
Fire Chief Francisco Ortiz Soto said the cause of the fire was not known. Ortiz Soto said at least 50 people were believed dead on the second floor, and that he had seen some bodies under tables in the casino.
Heriberto Lopez, president of the General Firemen's Union, who was inside the building, estimated that at least 80 people died.
'15 Charred Bodies'
"I counted 15 charred bodies in an area off the main lobby (on the mezzanine level)," Lopez said. "I estimate there are 80 dead, not counting the reception rooms. . . . The bodies are mouth-to-mouth, others in positions of desperate flight, many are unrecognizable."
Ramon A. Gonzalez, a patrolman aiding the rescue effort, said he had seen eight bodies in the casino and three in the cafeteria, which is on the same floor. A hospital said it had sent more than 30 body bags.
Alba Group, who was in the casino, said "two explosions, the second just seconds after the first, detonated and broke casino windows, letting in flames and great amounts of smoke."
'Big Gush of Smoke'
A tourist, 43-year-old John Lolli of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., said, "I was in the casino and all of a sudden there was a big gush of smoke." He said he thought the fire started in an area below the casino.
"The heat was so intense that people had to crawl out of the casino on their hands and knees. It was crowded when fire broke out," he said.
A hotel worker, who said he escaped the fire by dragging himself along the floor with a cloth over his face, said he heard a series of explosions and that "a violent fire immediately broke out" in the lower stories of the hotel.
He said there were about 100 hotel workers and 300 guests in the casino area of the hotel when the explosions occurred. The hotel reportedly had about 1,000 guests.
Anthony Cannon, a 17-year-old high school student from Bergen, N.J., said he and companion Timothy Conway were outside at the swimming pool when the fire began.
Watch as Man Jumps
"I heard two loud noises and all the glass shattered," Cannon said. He said they watched a man jump from a window near the casino and break his leg.
"My friend is dead," the man told Cannon.
The injured were taken to the front lawn to wait for transportation to three city hospitals. Many suffered severe burns, but others were treated and released.
Chaise lounges used by sunbathers at other hotels along the beach became cots for survivors.
About 25 victims, most suffering from smoke inhalation or burns, were brought to Rio Piedras Medical Center, Dr. Juan Nazario said. One person died at Rio Piedras of a head injury suffered in a jump from the burning hotel, he said.
Employees and the hotel management said the Dupont Plaza had faced a midnight strike deadline.
sh Arson Not Ruled Out
Gov. Hernandez Colon and Mayor Baltazar Corrada del Rio said arson could not be ruled out.
The fire began about 10 minutes after negotiations broke off with the Teamsters Union, which had threatened to go on strike at midnight. Jose Cadiz, secretary-general of the hotel workers' union, said the union had nothing to do with the fire.
"I know a lot of people are going to accuse the Teamsters," he said. "It's natural that if there was an impasse, people would think the union would do anything, but the union is not crazy."
Phillip C. McGuire, deputy director of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said a team of special agents including experts in explosives and arson and forensic chemists had been dispatched to San Juan at the request of Puerto Rican authorities.
Hernandez Colon described the fire as a "horrible tragedy." He said he had decreed three days of mourning and that the flags of Puerto Rico and the United States would be flown at half staff.