"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."
In the small hours of the annual Punta Carnivale celebrations held by Central American communities of the West Bronx, residents witness flames and smoke coming from a small but popular illegal nightspot known as Happy Land. Fire and rescue personnel arrive at the scene within three minutes – only to find all 87 party-goers trapped inside already dead. The victims have died at an unfathomable speed, succumbing to suffocation and the effects of lethal gases before the flames could even reach them.
Detectives soon realize that the disaster, epic and tragic in proportions, is no accident. The fire has been deliberately lit by an arsonist, the man responsible for what is to be the worst mass murder in American history to that time. And the motive is revenge for humiliation at the hands of a woman.
Happy Land – A Lover’s Revenge untangles the shocking story behind one of the worst fires in New York history. Exploring in detail a tragedy little remembered today, but rich with contemporary meaning, the story provides an unnerving snapshot of the possible consequences of societal indifference to violence against women and the plight of the most vulnerable in our communities.
Yesterday I submitted my latest manuscript to my publisher Next Chapter.
It's been quite a wild ride over the past few years, first embarking on the self-publishing journey and eventually signing on with Next Chapter who have seen my previous books reach very gratifying levels of success. A City Owned, Book 1 of my last two-part true crime series about the Hillside Strangler murders, Murder by Increments, recently climbed into the top 100 of all books sold in the Amazon kindle store. A fellow Next Chapter author told me it actually hit #1, but I wasn't able to verify that as due to the different time zone here in Australia as compared with the United States where the majority of my books are sold, I was asleep at the time :S Needless to say this level of success was unthinkable to me when I started out and I am so delighted and grateful for all the efforts made by my publisher to gain me visibility and expand my readership. Whatever they are doing is really working!
Of course a lot of the credit I must give to myself, and when I ask myself why these books about true crimes and disasters are proving so successful I must conclude that there are a lot of folks out there who want to learn more about the kinds of events I write about: some of the strangest, scariest and most thought-provoking historical incidents that have shaped our world. But people want to read about them in a way that offers a similar experience to a suspense novel, which is what I have always tried to achieve. A reviewer recently remarked that they would like to see more books like mine available in the marketplace: "We need more of this. The author doesn't get bogged down by the usual slow spots in historical reflections, yet approaches the event in a balanced yet more emotional approach". What a fantastic compliment to hear that what I am writing is filling a need and a niche in the market, one that I myself have seemingly stumbled into creating! And, well, it is not too surprising to me that true crime and disaster stories are proving popular at this particular historical juncture of human history, where depravity and disaster seem to be everywhere we look, every day (awkward laugh).
My latest work Happy Land, I hope, meets these expectations of my growing readership and meets with similar success.
Below is a teaser comprising the foreword and initial chapters from OJ Modjeska's forthcoming book Happy Land - A Lover's Revenge: The nightclub fire that shocked a nation. I hope you enjoy it and will consider buying the full work when it is eventually published, probably early in the new year 2020.
In the year 2019, as the American people looked around and surveyed what some might characterise as the detritus of a once great nation, many might be forgiven for thinking we have stumbled into an unprecedented age: where up is down, the sky is not blue, and everything appears to be sliding in every direction.
In 2019, when people thought about mass murder, they thought about gun violence. For the nation was almost palpably awash with the blood of children murdered in schools, shoppers exterminated in supermarkets, and sports fans slayed in stadiums by the angry, disenchanted and lonesome, domestic terrorists armed with weapons under the continuing influence of that troublesome but hallowed second amendment.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump was still talking about constructing a wall at the border with Mexico. The purported reason was to keep undesirables from Mexico and other equatorial zones out of America. There were those who thought that “the Donald” was not exactly a paragon of intellect, putting it kindly. But others suspected that there was more going on behind the scenes than was visible. Maybe he was cleverer—or at least more strategic—than he appeared? Trump was publicly a climate change denier. But what if he, or his advisors, knew that the wall had another, more important purpose? For while the children were being murdered in the classrooms, the great migrations were beginning: the brown faces arriving in ever greater numbers, not because they were fleeing persecution in their homelands (although there was that), but because their crops were failing, they were running out of water and food, and dying in heat waves in record numbers. As the 2020s opened, the climate catastrophe had suddenly arrived—fully, visibly: and the equatorial world was approaching the brink of uninhabitability.
Climate change was little discussed in mainstream discourse as the reason “behind” things. People sometimes called it the elephant in the room. It had become impolite to mention at dinner parties and in workplaces. If you did that, you risked averted gazes and a rapid changing of the subject to something more pleasant like planned holidays and home improvement projects.
There was another elephant in the room, apart from the murdered and incarcerated children, the rapidly warming planet. Women were being killed by men—usually partners or former partners—in rapidly escalating and dizzying numbers. In the media, men who committed these crimes were usually characterised as mentally ill or aberrant, much like the gun-toting maniacs who killed the school kids. But for thoughtful and curious observers, it was hard to conclude that there wasn’t something more systemic going on underneath.
And what if it was all related? The shooting of the children, the killing of women, the refugees camped at the borders? Well, it is, and was. The common denominator is the rage and desperation of planetary occupants who feel disinherited and deprived of what they believe was once, rightly or wrongfully, theirs: whether their lands, their women, or the mythologized racial purity of past communities.
Which brings us to the subject of this book.
For while it is tempting to conclude that this is indeed a new world in which old rules no longer apply—“uncharted territory”—there is, in fact, little that is completely new under the sun. At least, historians (a profession of which this author is a member) know that the antecedents to a terrifying and seemingly unfamiliar present can always be located in the past.
The phenomenon of mass murder is generally understood as the act of killing a number of people, typically simultaneously or over a relatively short period of time and in close geographic proximity. As mentioned, Americans today tend to think of mass murder in terms of mass shootings. As at the time of writing, the deadliest example of that occurred in Las Vegas in 2017, with 58 killed, but an incredible 851 injured.
It may come as a surprise then, that less than thirty years ago, in 1990, the worst mass murder in American history to date was not carried out by a gunman, but an arsonist.
The Happy Land nightclub fire, which occurred on 25 March 1990 in the West Bronx, claimed 87 victims—at that time the largest death toll from a single-perpetrator act of violence occurring in a single incident.
As deadly as it was, the fire is little remembered today outside the community that it directly affected. However for this author personally, it is sometimes history’s little known and remembered events that offer the most compelling curiosity.
Such was the case with Happy Land when I began to research the tragedy in detail. What initially appeared to be as an obscure incident from the past turned out to contain an amazing story with rich contemporary resonance.
The story had three achingly familiar, overlapping plotlines: a man rejected by a woman who visited a terrible act of violence on innocent people as revenge. Immigrants who left their homelands in search of survival and livelihood, and found themselves largely unwelcome and on the periphery in their new country. Humans ill-equipped to face epic disasters in the face of public indifference and crumbling infrastructure.
None of these things are new. But there was a surprising element to the Happy Land story too. In a way, it offers a look back into a more compassionate and authentic time, and provides a blistering sense of how much our society has changed, and how quickly—not necessarily for the better. In the years since the Happy Land fire occurred, the significance of the tragedy for most Americans has been gradually eclipsed by a monotonous series of mass killings that have happened since, many on a larger scale—such as 9/11, in which 2,977 people lost their lives. Today, people are constantly suffering and dying in lands both close and distant, and nobody as much as bats an eyelid: for this is our new “normal”, where apathy, compassion fatigue and an overriding sense of defeat have settled into our hearts. No longer do limitless resources and a narrative of a benign and progressive future support our efforts to have empathy for the most vulnerable in our midst – those who get the short end in the relentless march of development and consumption.
But at the time, this disaster and its attendant stories, beamed via TV sets into white middle class homes all over the country, seized and appalled the public imagination. And by virtue of the fact that this was the worst mass murder in American history, ordinary Americans everywhere were about to get an eye-opening glimpse into a world they hitherto knew—and thought—little about.
Back in the eighties and nineties, everyone was accustomed to hearing about “fire in the Bronx”. The borough, afflicted for years by poverty and urban decay, had been almost permanently alight throughout the seventies, when landlords burned down their own properties to collect insurance monies for unsaleable and abandoned buildings. So routine had these fires become, that nobody thought much of it. But this fire was different, and what was different about it cast a spotlight on the inner life and complexities of a Bronx neighborhood, and the struggles of its inhabitants, in a way that was unprecedented—and rather shocking.
It was maybe the Bronx’s most devastating tragedy. Even today, the fire summons recollections that are so personal and painful, for so many residents. Thirty years has not been enough to erase the memories of horror, and perhaps no amount of time ever will be.
And even today the people of East Tremont have never forgotten the hatred and rage they felt against the man responsible. While others have not forgotten their resentment towards the woman whose rejection inspired his horrific act of violence.
Even so, perhaps what is so remarkable about the Happy Land story stands in contrast to the very intense feelings it arouses in the people it affected. It is a tale that is appalling—and yet also troublingly ordinary.
A typical crime story has easily identifiable villains and victims. This story is of another kind— and it is grim, fascinating and unspeakably sad, in large part because it is a tale where all the protagonists, both the perpetrator and the victims, were caught in similar realms of suffering and disadvantage. Crime movies and novels featuring the old trope of super villains getting their due are gratifying to humanity’s fears and delusions about the nature of evil. In real life, however, terrible acts of cruelty and violence often spring from the limits to human tolerance for the mundane pains and struggles inflicted on people by the society in which they live. Happy Land is such a story.
Those who lived through the fire passed the tale to their children, and the Happy Land story became legendary in the Bronx, part of its urban folklore.
It is this author’s contention that it should not be forgotten by the world.
In New York's outer suburban rings in the small hours of 25 March 1990, all was quiet, with most residents tucked up asleep in their beds. Meanwhile the streets of East Tremont, the Bronx, were alive with noise, traffic, and colorfully-clad locals who had no intention of retiring any time soon.
March 25 is the annual date of Punta Carnivale, the equivalent of Mardi Gras in Central America. So it was that even at 3.00am the streets thronged with Hispanic and Caribbean revellers, many of whom were spilling out of local nightclubs to head home, or continue their fun at other establishments.
The neighborhood, decayed and desperate, was rarely given a thought or a glance by white middle class New Yorkers—except when there was some kind of crackdown going on. The spectral West Bronx skyline was haunted by the shadows of abandoned buildings, and nestled between them were empty lots strewn with sundry trash—busted pallets, crushed bottles, dirty torn mattresses, burned-out vehicles. Photographs from the time show a city more resembling Kosovo or Beirut than any image we generally associate with “New York, New York”.
The area had been through many social and economic transformations since the second world war; mid-century it was home primarily to Irish and Italian immigrants, but by the sixties it had evolved into an African American community, and in the seventies and eighties the black locals were joined by large numbers of immigrants from Puerto Rico, Honduras, Ecuador and Mexico.
Most of the time, as soon as the central Americans landed in New York, they already knew where they were going. They headed straight to the Bronx—where they would find others like themselves, and where they wouldn’t bother the white folks.
And life in East Tremont wasn’t all bad. Boom boxes playing hip-hop and reggae on corners, street vendors selling colorful curiosities and home crafts, cafes that served homestyle Latin and Caribbean food. And then, after dark, the people would forget their troubles and their straightened circumstances at the clubs that lined the streets of Southern Boulevard and East Tremont Avenue, which served cheap alcoholic drinks and charged no or low entry fees, often around five dollars.
One such club was Happy Land, a small but popular nightspot which occupied an unassuming building located on Southern Boulevard, partway between the intersections of Crotona Parkway and East Tremont Avenue.
Shortly after 3.30am on the night of Punta Carnivale, pedestrians in the area smelled heavy plumes of smoke. Those passing through Southern Boulevard saw that the entire facade of the building located at 1959 Southern Boulevard was on fire. A local resident who was out and about for the celebrations rushed to a payphone and dialed the fire department.
At 3.41am, just minutes after the blaze erupted, officers of the FDNY arrived at the scene.
As the firefighters hosed the entry and hallway of the club, on the steps they saw several charred bodies. The victims, Black and Hispanic immigrants in their late teens and early twenties, were piled towards the door; these people had been stampeding for the fire-enveloped exit … which raised the possibility that the blazing doorway had been the only way in our out.
More bodies were scattered on the first floor bar room floor. The men began pulling these victims on the first floor out one by one. Their number soon reached nineteen; this was very bad, but not as bad as it could be, they told themselves. Fires happened in the Bronx all the time. Such incidents as this had become sadly commonplace over the years.
But they had yet to discover the scene on the upper, second floor. The men began to ascend the steps of the narrow wooden staircase in single file. As they emerged into the darkened room, they noticed a strange feeling under their feet. There were piles of stuff on the ground; clothing and discarded purses and other personal effects.
But that wasn’t all. No, it wasn’t just clothing they were tripping over. They were standing and stepping on bodies.
One of the officers let out an anguished cry.
The room—small, dim and windowless—was packed with dead bodies. Everywhere the men pointed their flashlights, they saw bodies, piled one on top of the other. In some areas, the bodies were piled four deep.
Once the room was cleared of smoke, the full horror was revealed, so terrible that some of the men vomited. The club had been filled with underaged kids. Many of the victims were little girls, teenagers, dressed in their best party clothes.
Their bodies were not burnt in the slightest. They had died long before the fire could reach them. They had seemingly died in seconds, not minutes. Gas or asphyxiation had claimed them at an unfathomable speed.
Some had died still clutching their glasses. They had died seated at tables. They had died clawing at their throats.
“The scene was paralyzing,” FDNY Assistant Chief Frank Nastro later said. “We stood there numbed. No one spoke. There were 69 bodies spread about this 24x50 foot area. They all could have been sleeping.”
Later, when questioned by the press, the firemen would strain to find appropriate analogies for the surreal scene of carnage. For while a fire had surely taken the victims, these did not look like any fire victims they were used to seeing—and many of the men, confronted with what appeared more like a room stuffed with mannequins, wondered how it could even happen.
Pompeii. Hiroshima. A Nazi gas chamber, were some of the words they used.
Sixty-nine bodies in a single small room, frozen in time.
The detectives and firemen who gathered at the scene quickly surmised a couple of important facts about the fire.
The first was that Happy Land, like many similar clubs around the Bronx, was an illegal operation, and had been housed inside a building lacking relevant permits and patently unfit for occupation. Such was part of the explanation for the scene of horror on the second floor, a small windowless room packed well beyond its capacity, that had been rapidly drained of oxygen as the fire approached from the floor below, suffocating everyone inside.
These people shouldn’t have been here, an officer remarked.
Which kind of begged the question—where should they have been?
It was an old problem. Immigrants from Central America came to the United States looking for livelihood and a better existence. Some secured residential rights, others were illegals. They flooded the Bronx, looking for the companionship of congenial relatives and friends, and found themselves on the margins of New York life. Packed into crumbling and unsafe tenements, and into illegal and dangerous nightclubs ... for these were the places they could afford, and could find welcome. Just some years back there had been a fire at a similar nightclub, the El Hoyo. The victims had been young immigrants, just like these ones. Luckily only seven, on that occasion.
It was also clear to the detectives that, despite the fact that the building was a firetrap and an accident waiting to happen, the fire at Happy land had been no mishap. The entryway to the club was pervaded by a smell of gasoline. Then, they found an empty plastic Blackhawk gasoline container on the street, not far from the club’s entrance. They were dealing with arson. And it looked as though whoever had done it was perhaps not too concerned about getting caught.
It was possible that the arson had been a random attack—executed by a crazed passer-by or a patron, someone engaged in destruction for its own sake—but first instincts didn’t tell them so. Nor was it likely the crime had a pecuniary motive such as people were used to seeing in the Bronx—building owners who set fire to their property to collect insurance money. If that were the case, why had a fire been lit when the building was packed with party-goers?
Instead, they were forming an impression that a deliberate act of violence had taken place—an act of aggression against the club, its owners or operators, or somebody who worked there or frequented the place regularly.
Their suspicions would be confirmed within hours. A Puerto Rican woman in her early forties named Lydia Feliciano came into the precinct and told Detective Andrew Lugo, who spoke her native Spanish, that she was an employee of the club and had been there the night before when the fire broke out. She had managed to escape with three other people—she wasn’t sure how many other survivors there might be.
The thing was, she had an inkling that the fire might have been set by her ex-boyfriend. He had come to the club the night before seeking reconciliation. There had been some trouble, an argument, and the bouncer had thrown him out. The fire engulfed the entryway a short time later.
Of course, she couldn’t be completely sure he was responsible. But the timing was very suspicious.
Detectives pulled up the suspect’s information and discovered that, like most of his victims (assuming he was the man responsible), he too was an immigrant from Central America—a Cuban who had come to America on the Mariel boatlift in 1980.
He wasn’t an illegal, but a so-called “parolee”, a designation given to immigrants released from detention centers who had neither citizenship nor residential status, but were allowed to remain in the United States as long as they never committed a crime.
And it appeared from his record that, up until the present time, he hadn’t—at least not one that was documented.
So far, the man’s name, and the fact that he was a Marielito was about all the police knew about their lead suspect.
The latter point set bells ringing slightly, whether unfairly or not. There was a great deal of prejudice towards the Marielitos within the United States. Thanks in part to the 1983 film Scarface and its depiction of Tony Montana, the violent drug kingpin of Miami, they had become one of the most feared and reviled immigrant groups in the United States.
Based on Feliciano’s description, the officers weren’t expecting to find a Tony Montana in their suspect. Still, his background concerned them.
It wasn’t just a matter of ordinary prejudice. It wasn’t just the layers and layers of white resentment about the recent influx of immigrants from southern nations, some illegal, some with “illegitimate” claims to asylum, some with obvious bad intentions, some who might be violent, mad or out-of-control… although there was all that too, that accounted for public sentiment towards Marielitos.
The man at the center of the case would indeed become another poster child for conservative commentators who decried the dangers to American society of new arrivals from nations with incongruous mores and values. But the story behind the Mariel boat people had an additional specific dimension to it that terrified and infuriated many American people. In their narrative, no group of immigrants could be more illegitimate or more frightening than this one. For these were the people Castro had unleashed on America for revenge.
American life had already been fractured for many decades by debates about the possible negative effects of immigration on the homeland. The American Dream has always held forth the idea that those coming from distant shores have a positive contribution to make to society, and in return may themselves be enriched by economic opportunity and the possibility of a better life. Critics, however, have always been at pains to point out that “we don’t really know who these people are.” Good intentions aside, they say, are we not inviting terrorists, criminals, drug dealers and murderers into our borders along with those small handfuls of folk who “have a positive contribution to make to society”?
The debate is further complicated when, over time, both left and right have tended to agree on America’s obligation to provide safe haven for victims of enemy regimes. Isolationist skeptics contend such soft-hearted idealism is misguided and dangerous, a foolish by-product of America’s arrogant belief in its own moral superiority. We are better than them—it is our responsibility to help them!
Such claims were made about the Mariel boatlift of 1980, during which some 125,000 Cuban nationals escaped Fidel Castro’s regime by agreement between the Jimmy Carter administration and the Cuban government. The agreement was terminated in late October 1980 after the influx of Marielitos began to pose a political problem for the Carter administration; it turned out that many of these promising immigrants were convicted criminals or mentally ill. The American people naturally did not like this.
Certainly Fidel Castro was one who thought America’s philosophy of “lending a hand to their lessors” was condescending and offensive. His actions in response proved him to be a man with a rather wry sense of humor. Jimmy Carter was a president whose well-intentioned nature history would cast in the light of weakness. In this instance his bleeding heart and hand-wringing was exploited for all it was worth, and he would be judged harshly for it.
Carter’s administration had been seeking rapprochement with the Cuban government for some years, in part due to a desire to relax trade embargos. In the late seventies, after many harsh years of economic austerity under the regime, thousands of Cuban asylum seekers sought refuge in South American embassies, provoking a crisis for the Cuban government that reached its apex in April 1980. Following the offer of the deal welcoming refugees by the American government, Castro announced that the port of Mariel would be opened to anyone wishing to leave Cuba, as long as they had someone to pick them up. Most of the Marielitos who took advantage of the offer were indeed ordinary citizens seeking asylum. But in a move inspired by vindictiveness on the part of Castro, who resented the official American welcome, the regime emptied several of its jails and mental hospitals and sent those freed to Mariel Bay, ensuring that the Americans would get far more than they bargained for—and discouraging a repeat of any such generosity in future.
One of these “victims of the regime” who would embark on the freedom flotilla to the USA was Julio Gonzalez.