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Police Ignored It Because Guards Saw No Problem : Puerto Rico Hotel Received Bomb Threat Before Fire

January 04, 1987|From the Washington Post

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Police said Saturday that authorities received a bomb threat against the Dupont Plaza Hotel shortly before it was swept by fire New Year's Eve but did not investigate because hotel security guards assured them there was no problem.

Hotel spokesman Rissig Licha said he could not dispute the police account. "Whatever they say, they must know. We're not questioning the police."

He said the Dupont management "is not aware" of any such threat and that the owners are "trying to find out personally who was involved."

Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon said Saturday that "everything points to criminal responsibility" for the blaze, which claimed 95 lives.

Labor Dispute Cited

Colon, a former attorney general of Puerto Rico, said: "There is absolutely nothing pointing in the direction of political terrorism" as a possible cause of the fire. "So far, there exists no evidence that will link this possible arson with any type of political terrorism or violence other than the labor dispute at the hotel.

"Although the investigation is far from completed, everything that has been discovered up to now indicates that the cause of this fire stems from the labor dispute," Hernandez Colon said.

The hotel was swept by fire Wednesday shortly after Teamsters Union employees rejected a final management contract offer to replace an agreement that expired at midnight that day.

Hernandez Colon sharply criticized the hotel's management for failing to tell guests of any threats. "Certainly, the guests should have been apprised of the fact that there were bomb threats," he said.

'Such Threats Are Usual'

"They (the threats) should have been put in the context that such threats are usual in labor talks here. But the guests would then have been free to decide for themselves" whether to stay at the Dupont, he said.

The death toll of 95 was unchanged Saturday from the number of bodies recovered from the fire-blackened building as of Friday night. The search continued for more victims, but a complete list of the missing had not been assembled because the hotel's guest records were destroyed in the blaze.

Of the 142 people who suffered burns, smoke inhalation and injuries from the blaze and attempts to flee it, 21 remained hospitalized.

Secretary of Justice Rivera Cruz, who is heading the probe, said Saturday that investigators have found "various evidence" in the debris of the casino and the adjacent lobby. When asked by reporters if he believed the fire to be arson rather than an accident, he said: "I think so."

Streets Reopened

Police, who had cordoned off pedestrian and vehicle traffic for a block around the Dupont, reopened streets and sidewalks.

Police Supt. Carlos Lopez Feliciano on Saturday said that more than 150 survivors and witnesses to the disaster had been interviewed and more than 200 agents have collected data they hope will show how and where the inferno started. "We have a lot of important pieces of the jigsaw," he told reporters at the hotel after a 2 1/2-hour meeting that included federal and local law enforcement officials.

Lopez Feliciano said evidence was being analyzed in laboratories. He refused to answer reporters' questions about evidence collected, including whether any bomb fragments or incendiary devices were recovered.

Unionist Blames Management

Meanwhile, Teamsters Secretary Treasurer Jose Cadiz placed blame for the fire with hotel management, saying that workers had told him that sterno, a fuel used to heat buffet trays, was stored in the kitchen as a reserve supply in case of a strike, and might have started the fire.

But Bruce Shulman, vice president of the hotel, said the allegation was not true.

Cadiz told reporters at a union meeting Saturday that he thought the investigation would reveal that the blaze was an accident. "I hope, my God, that no union member would do that (arson)," he said.

The San Juan Star reported Saturday that three people have given signed statements to prosecutors saying a union official told them to leave the casino moments before the fire broke out because "things are going to happen any minute now."

About 200 people, including survivors, gathered Saturday at a memorial service, celebrated by Cardinal Luis Aponte Martinez.

Others returned to the State Medical Center to await word on the identification of friends or relatives whose bodies were burned beyond recognition.

Forty-five victims had been tentatively identified by Saturday.

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