Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

A River Of Tears: Happy Land

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 24x50 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.

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