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Hotel Fire Called Arson; Labor Issue Cited

January 02, 1987|From the Washington Post

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — The Puerto Rican attorney general on Thursday described as arson the New Year's Eve hotel fire that killed at least 60 people, and the governor said suspicion focused on the "very tense labor situation that existed" that day during contract negotiations for much of the staff.

At a news conference in an army tent on the lawn of the heavily damaged luxury high-rise Dupont Plaza, Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon said the Teamsters Union local had leveled "different threats" against the hotel and that "last-minute word" went out "that something was going to happen--and something did."

"There was a radio spot from the Teamsters saying basically that . . . New Year's Eve at the Dupont Plaza would not be pleasant," Hernandez Colon said.

" . . . Witnesses are telling us that in the casino, word passed minutes before the event (the fire) that certain people should leave because something was going to happen," he said.

Roberto Nogueras, an employee of a Spanish-language San Juan radio station, said that his station had broadcast--several times daily for about two weeks--a commercial produced by the Teamsters local saying that the labor situation at the Dupont Plaza had made the hotel an unpleasant place to spend the holidays.

A union negotiator angrily denied any connection between the union and the fire. "We have heard that some of our workers may be among the dead," Jorge Farinacci told the Associated Press.539107927. . if (arson) is the case."

Farinacci is free on $1-million bail after his 1985 arrest in connection with the robbery of a Wells Fargo depot in Hartford, Conn., in 1983. He has been linked by the FBI to the Macheteros, a militant Puerto Rican independence group.

Earlier Thursday, Atty. Gen. Hector Rivera Cruz said "a special squad from the police is trying to establish the cause of the arson . . . trying to establish details of arson that caused that tragedy."

"We have evidence of a big fire in lower levels of the hotel, on the first and second floors," Cruz said.

Hernandez Colon said that 41 bodies had been found by early Thursday afternoon in the charred mezzanine and lower ballroom of the 21-story oceanfront hotel in the city's main tourist section. Rescue workers discovered 19 more before the search was suspended for the night.

Hernandez Colon said that 106 people have been hospitalized, 18 in very serious or critical condition, according to hospital and law enforcement officials.

Scores of other guests in the hotel, which was crowded with holiday vacationers, were treated for minor injuries and released.

The Dupont had no fire sprinkler system, and Puerto Rican law does not require that hotels have the safety devices, Hernandez Colon said. He said that he will take immediate steps to correct this, although he added that the fire was so intense and spread so quickly that a sprinkler system would have been ineffective.

San Juan Police Supt. Carlos Lopez Feliciano said the fire swept through the hotel's crowded casino so quickly that some of the victims' bodies were found in a seated position, as though transfixed at a gaming table.

A team of 10 FBI forensic specialists arrived Thursday from Washington to help in the identification of the victims.

Guests and one senior hotel official reported hearing two and possibly three explosions on the mezzanine. Lopez Feliciano refused to say whether any preliminary evidence indicated that there had been explosions. Bomb analysts from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were on the scene.

Hotel guests and government officials reported that at least three small fires had occurred at the hotel in the week between Christmas and New Year's Eve. Fire officials considered one of the fires of suspicious origin and took unspecified "security" steps, Hernandez Colon said.

Officials here said that the hotel is one of several of the same name, including the Dupont Plaza Hotel in Washington, owned by Hotel Systems International of Santa Monica, Calif.

The Los Angeles chapter of the American Red Cross said Thursday it will assist in providing information about survivors of the fire. The telephone number for inquiries is 213-739-5200.

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