Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, New York was known for its club scene. Whether you wanted to go to one of the big clubs in Manhattan or somewhere a little bit more low-key, no matter your race or economic status, chances are that there would be a club to welcome you with open arms.
At the height of the club scene’s popularity, many small and often illegal clubs opened up throughout the five boroughs. Among them was a club known as the Happy Land Social Club, which catered to the influx of South American and Cuban immigrants who had made the Bronx their new home.
Happy Land had received several warnings throughout its years of operation, citing serious safety concerns including a lack of fire extinguishers, emergency lighting, exit signs, and inaccessible fire escapes. In spite of these warnings, the club continued to operate unfazed between 1988 and 1990, that is, until tragedy struck.
On the night of March 25, 1990, the club went up in flames. Unable to get out of the club’s only exit, 87 people, including the club’s owner, perished inside. The fire had been no accident, it was a deliberate act of arson.
By the following day, police had a suspect in custody. According to witnesses, on the night of the fire, coat check girl Lydia Feliciano had gotten into a heated argument with her ex-boyfriend Julio González. González had been forced to leave the club but had threatened to return on the way out. From there, González walked to a nearby gas station and paid to fill up a plastic jug. Returning to the club, González poured the gasoline on the only stairwell out of the building, lit two matches, slid down the metal security gate, and went home. At the time, it was considered the worst mass murder in US history.
González was charged with 174 counts of murder – two counts for each victim. He was found guilty and sentenced to 25-years to life in prison. Many people, including the six survivors of the night club fire, believed that this sentence was much too lenient.
Within days after the arson, a task force was formed and many of the illegal clubs that had been operating in New York were subsequently shut down. According to an article published in the New York Times, of the 1,500 clubs that were inspected that same year, a third of them were closed for violations. The number of clubs that had remained operational, in spite of being cited for serious safety violations prior to the Happy Land fire, did not go unnoticed. During González’s trial, the judge remarked, “There are many to be blamed [for the fire], not just Julio González.”
González died on September 13, 2016, after suffering a heart attack. He was 61 years old.